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Lust in the Time of War and Ennui

 

TV on the Radio: Return to Cookie Mountain

4AD /Interscope, 2006

Rating: 4.6

 

Posted: September 16, 2006

By Laurence Station

Ennui unbridled. That, in a (paradoxical) nutshell, is the vibe conveyed by, and import of, TV on the Radio’s sterling sophomore full-length, Return to Cookie Mountain. Typically, reviewers provide such pithy summations -- easily digestible, clever and compact. Not this time. “Ennui unbridled” is a line from Cookie Mountain’s opening track, “I Was a Lover.” Return to Cookie Mountain articulates a sense of impotence and frustration in a planet that’s spun far beyond the average person’s control, where love has been supplanted by baser desires and even carnal satisfaction leaves hopeless romantics wanting, grasping for a ray of hope in a world gone mad.

Return to Cookie Mountain is less a quantum leap over 2004’s promising Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes than a logical progression, offering greater compositional clarity and cleaner, more purposeful production. Producer and principal noisemaker David Sitek, along with singers Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, drummer Jaleel Bunton and bassist Gerard Smith (though, rather cheekily, everyone gets listed with the catch-all “multi-instrumentalist” tag in the liner notes) simply sound less like a studio project and more like an actual band this time around, the integration of musical elements, from rock and soul to jazz and electronica better integrated.

Despite such laudable upgrades, Cookie Mountain is not a flawless creation, burdened at times by clumsy phrasing (“Oh you could curl me beside you / The spark in your eyes belies the apocalypse inside you / Twisting the pits from the particle / Skull can’t save face,” from “Dirty Whirl”) and a tendency to recycle beats (albeit excellent ones).

What elevates Cookie Mountain is a ringing sense of indignation, coupled with an utterly helpless expression of what any of us can do in a world enflamed by war and strife. One solution is to simply let free the animal within, as is done on the powerhouse track “Wolf Like Me.” Sexually assertive lines like “When the moon is round and full / Gonna teach you tricks that’ll blow your mongrel mind” are skillfully undermined by conflicted admissions like “My heart's aflame / My body's strained / But God I like it.” What “The Rat” was to The Walkmen’s Bows & Arrows, “Wolf Like Me” is to TV on the Radio’s Cookie Mountain: the peak moment and defining track on a breakthrough release.

“Province” builds off of a persistent guitar loop and the arresting opening declaration “Suddenly, all your history’s ablaze / Try to breathe, as the world disintegrates,” attaining a level of operatic resonance aided in no small part by the presence of guest vocalist David Bowie. Shades of “Heroes”-era Bowie are summoned forth on melodramatically delivered declarations like “Hold your heart courageously / As we walk into this dark place.” “A Method” provides a nice change of pace from the omnipresent clatter-and-stomp rhythms, reviving TV on the Radio’s affinity for doo-wop and featuring Jaleel Bunton’s intentionally indolent whistling.

Thematically, Cookie Mountain traces a classic descent/rock bottom/resurrection motif. The lover of the opening track has fallen from his richly appointed penthouse, isolated from the fray, and on the rumbling, dense “Blues From Down Here,” he lets forth with a mournful plea to heaven. “Tonight” wrestles with drug addiction, possibly winning the battle (“Your busted heart will be fine / In its telltale time / So give it up tonight”), and the closing “Wash The Day Away” opens with the disconcerting but somehow hopeful image of metal birds overhead, “creating beauty inadvertently.” The alarming notion of “making out so high in the backseat of a car-bomb under carcinogenic sun” is put to rest with the queasily hopeful refrain, “Lay your malady at the mouth of the death machine.”

The trio of bonus tracks on the U.S. release confirms that the best material made the cut, though the vibrantly illuminated “Snakes and Martyrs” serves as a nice contrast to the grittier pieces preceding it. Return to Cookie Mountain validates the promise of TV on the Radio, an outfit that heretofore had displayed more potential than actual returns. Regrettably, troubled times tend to bring out the best in artists. If that be the case, look for even stronger work, at least for the next few years.

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