I still haven’t recovered from 2011. One of my favorite bands had released their fourth album, Nine Types Of Light, which should have launched a triumphant victory lap around the globe after releasing two essentially perfect albums with Return To Cookie Mountain (2006) and Dear Science (2008). They had gotten the critical acclaim, topping the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll in 2008, and now they were due to sell some damn albums and tour in front of shit-tons of people. But they were shot in the knee when bassist Gerard Smith died of cancer. They canceled some club dates afterwards, and soldiered on for a few more. During times like these for popular bands or even smaller cult ones, you generally see massive outpourings of love and support from fans, and craploads of media coverage. Tastefully, the band retreated from all that to recoup and heal. But here’s the fucked up part. There was a bunch of startlingly mean-spirited, sniping feedback on the new album in forums and in reviews. Then there was…nothing. A virtual media blackout (despite the amazing full-length video they created to accompany the album). It sank without a trace, and while it certainly had taken a more pop direction, this was not a surprise. But the lukewarm response was shocking, as Nine Types of Light was freaking awesome, just only barely off the peak performance of the previous album. “Will Do” should have been a huge hit. They should have been up there getting Grammys, not Arcade Fire. I still seethe with outrage when I think about it.
The band however took it better than me, because, well, they’re TVOTR, and they’re cool like that. They just stepped back for a while and got back to it when they were ready to enjoy making new music again. Seeds applies just a touch more current pop production than the last one, but it’s hardly a departure. The band were never strangers to pop melodies, going back to “Staring At The Sun” 11 years ago. It starts out strong with some subtly experimental recording techniques on “Quartz,” with gamelon-like percussion and a nice reference to their early excursions in post-structuralist doo-wop. “Careful You” percolates with bubbling synths, strong hooks and double meanings.” “Could You” kicks off with a tasty 60s psych guitar riff, a simple, circular melody and celebratory horn bridge. “Happy Idiot” is the first single, which sounds deceptively simple, but is quite brilliant in its tension between avant rock elements with funky electronics. A pure pop song that rides a wave of tension between fun and menace. Paul Reubons is excellent in the video, and lead singer Tunde Adebimpe is rocking the bald head and beard look like a boss.
“Test Pilot” takes a turn from innovation into more purely emotional territory. It’s the sort of pop ballad that could have come from Taylor Swift, and it’s just as good or better than any of her mega hits, with a catchier chorus. “Love Stained” also shamelessly draws from MOR sounds, but sells it based on the strength of its soulful euphoria. It’s only the seventh track “Ride” that I first find any fault with the album. The ambient Eno-like piano, synth and strings stretches the intro into two minutes, and it’s just too damn long. The motorik melody that kicks in is not bad, but also not a good enough payoff for such an uneventful first third. “Winter” also doesn’t do it for me. The guitars sound like an awkward afterthought, much like R.E.M. on one of their weaker albums, Monster, and the tune is just too slight. The punky “Lazerray” is much more satisfying. “Trouble” is the third track that I’m less than happy with. It’s one of the band’s rare boring moments. It pains me to admit it, but three misses out of a dozen is hardly a disaster. And it’s certainly not enough to justify this dismissive review that it’s “just dreary.” WTF! Yes, TVOTR can get grim and droney with the best of them, as anyone familiar with “Blind” and “Young Liars” from their 2003 EP can confirm. But they still deserve the status as one of the best bands around.
They more than redeem themselves with “Right Now,” where Kyp Malone deftly balances a jaunty playfulness with thoughtful, sensual melancholy. And then there’s album closer “Seeds,” which is just massively gorgeous, challenging the transcendent “Wash The Day” and triumphant “Lover’s Day.” So in the end I suppose this could be their least great album, though it’s still more consistent than their debut from a decade ago, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. It may be their first not to make my top 10 at the end of the year (we’ll see), but it’s hard to be disappointed when I’ve got nine thoroughly enjoyable new songs that have been dominating my playlists.