Sometime between 2006's Return to Cookie Mountain and Dear Science, N.Y.C. art-rock weirdos TV on the Radio discovered the joy of melody. Not that Cookie Mountain was completely liberated from riffs, structure and the stuff that rocket more commercial-minded bands to the top of the iTunes chart; but between utility member and producer David Sitek's densely layered aural architecture and the guitars' fuzzbox shredding, straightforward tunes weren't exactly easy to come by.
No one will mistake TV on the Radio for Jonas Brothers on Dear Science, but the artsy quintet balances its more out-there ideas (songs still sound wobbly, like they're about ready to topple over from a hard night of boozing) with pretty piano fills and shake-your-body dance jams. It all comes off perfectly proper, until it hits you that maybe this is all just some sort of elaborate put-on.
"Red Dress" borrows David Bowie's disconnected funk, his seesawing vocal tricks and even his favorite night-on-the-town color (TVOTR's "Red Dress" would pair fabulously with the red shoes from Bowie's "Let's Dance"). Bowie has fucked with his fans for years, playing a coked-out space alien here, adapting a soul-man persona there, releasing one terrible album after another in the '90s. Likewise, Dear Science's most conventional songs ("Crying," "Shout Me Out") mess with hipster expectations in ways that test and skewer listeners' perceptions. It all but comes out and asks, "Exactly what should we sound like, Pitchfork readers?"
The hums, the buzzes and the general symphonies of noise that weave in and out of Dear Science are a remarkable display of Sitek's noise collages. On the closing "Lover's Day," Kyp Malone sings about breaking backs, melting faces and hungry cannibals, while horns, synths, guitars, drums and a half-dozen other instruments march into the bright-orange sunset. We have no idea what it all means; two years and many listens to Cookie Mountain later, we still don't have a clue about what's going on in that album.
But it sounds fantastic, as it mostly does here. TV on the Radio started out as an art project. Over the course of three CDs - 2004's debut, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, plays like a gallery installation with guitars - the band has traded a few of its abstract ideas for something resembling songs. Dear Science falls into that space between art and major-label concession. It's not a compromise, by any means; things are way too strange for that kind of talk. Cuts settle into grooves that - depending on your level of rock snobbery - could be perceived as pop. But most of us will be too busy humming along to care.