TV on the Radio
Return to Cookie Mountain
et’s just be out with it, because we’re all friends here. You’ve heard some version of Return to Cookie Mountain already, and you already know how great it is. You leapt on it immediately, even knowing it was bootleg and mislabeled. Or you’ve had it thrust at you by your pirate friends, or they’ve blasted it in their cars, or—worst case scenario—blogged it. Just the other day, I heard a snippet of “Tonight” humming serenely through the scented air of a coffee shop downtown, and a table of college kids were breathlessly discoursing on its greatness. Their recent free show in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park brought out the bankers and lawyers, models and goth girls, hipsters from all points on the employability scale, boho parents and their adorable little boho children, and it was a blast for all concerned. A group that, just four years ago, were still fucking around aimlessly on a four-track are now the toast of thoughtful pop circles, recent major-label signees with the world wrapped around their fingers, sitting atop a growing throne of increasingly mainstream cool, and they haven’t even announced an American release date yet. You’ve got to hand it to the internet. It’s only just July, but it’s already a fait accompli: this is TV on the Radio’s year.
Pre-release Internet hype is such a fickle beast though, non? So many of these feted albums are awfully easy to be lukewarm about (Clap Your Hands, MIA) and are usually not much more than “universally acceptable;” the online indiescenti version of the disposable pop fix. The chattering classes will chatter, and might convince someone, somewhere that a Next Big Thing has been found, while the rest of the world shrugs. The offline world has plenty of disposable pop already, and it’s often more joyous, rambunctious, wears skimpier clothes, and dances better.
Now TVOTR find themselves as the toast of the e-town, sharing copy space with Carrie Underwood and Sean Paul and Paris Hilton. They’re doomed! Maybe (hopefully) they’ll sell loads and loads of records, maybe (probably) not, but Return to Cookie Mountain will be remembered fondly long after their accidental peers have fallen off the failed hard drive of history. You probably already knew that too, so let’s detour and take a look, hard look at that title. Return to Cookie Mountain. Wow, right? Producer and general noisenik David Sitek has referred cryptically to a “journey” to the titular place that led to this record; exactly how figurative he’s being is left to the imagination. It only looks inane on paper; the mysterious tale and the imagined nature of a place called Cookie Mountain gives a whiff of the psychedelic to an origin that smacks of a vision quest. Tunde and Kyp have returned supremely confident in their writing and even more so in their vocals (check the pair so deviously off-pitch on “Wash the Day,” one-mind maniacal on “Let the Devil In,” and sweetly dovetailing on “A Method”), and Sitek and especially the backing unit of Gerard Smith and Jaleel Bunton hark and herald as if on a mission, pounding out righteousness.
This might have been your impression of the early leaked version, the one that began with the rollicking bluster-punk of “Wolf Like Me” before dipping into the meat of the slower numbers. In fact, my first listen to the official version after that seemed a little wonky; “I Was a Lover” is no one’s obvious choice for an opener. It’s rickety, woozy, a little decayed around the edges, and holey like Swiss cheese; when it swells toward the end, it’s like a giant pocket of air bubbling up to the surface of a tar pit. The first words we get are “I was a lover / Before this war,” and suddenly its placement doesn’t feel so strange: it’s meant to point emphatically to Cookie Mountain‘s dark underbelly. Here in the valley, we’re immersed in the grip of the End-Times Shivers. Lyrically, it’s all reminiscences of a dying past or missives to the survivors in the present: “try to breathe as the world disintegrates,” “the spark in your eyes belies the apocalypse inside you,” “a rusty heart starts to whine in its tell-tale time, so free it up tonight;” the sort of stupid things only the truly sincere can ever get away with.
Which makes the whole thing sound like your local high-school talent show or something equally obnoxious. But Cookie Mountain‘s true power isn’t buried desolation, but high-flying life, the clustered, welling masses of sound—everything here shows up in groups: a pair of drummers, three gut-blasting singers, a flotilla of serrated guitars—that surround, that replace the air in the room with a heady, buzzy charge. “Province” grooves through everyday destruction, horror, and pain like an old nightmare before exploding into a clear-eyed oath, with David Bowie lurking in the background like a whisper from the afterlife; the bad love of “Dirtywhirl” and its sweet little keys and sleigh bells; “Tonight”’s thick smear of regret punctured by nothing more than a pledge, an acknowledgment, and a promise. TV on the Radio have crafted a work of immense, cataclysmic, almost overwhelming power and righteous fire. But you already knew that.
Reviewed by: Jeff Siegel
Reviewed on: 2006-07-12