New York band TV On The Radio exists like vapor: It's constantly shifting shape, occasionally cohering into something solid, then vaporizing again. That makes it difficult to describe the band's music or quantify what exactly it does, but the mutability affords limitless possibilities. If nothing else, the new Return To Cookie Mountain—TV On The Radio's major-label debut—revels in the musical possibilities that accompany such stylistic freedom.
The music feels as loose as ever, almost improvised at times. The opening track, "I Was A Lover," establishes the rules: The song lacks any kind of verse-chorus structure, and it's constructed mostly with a simple beat, washes of distortion that sound like white noise, and vocals by members Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe. It's a bold song whose warm experimentalism will either click with listeners or turn them off.
A straightforward song doesn't arrive until track five, "Wolf Like Me," with its propulsive, steady drumming and melodic chord progression. But TV On The Radio still layers the song with noisy, though not distracting, layers of sound. (The band later repeats the style on "Blues From Down Here.") Throughout, Cookie Mountain rolls like a ship on water, steering into experimental moments, then gently rolling into less outré tracks. Yet even the group's more adventurous passages—like the droney "Tonight"—shouldn't alienate listeners outright; the warm, harmony-laden vocal interplay (which adds David Bowie on one track) always provides something to grasp.
TV On The Radio's 2004 album, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, seemed to lose its way during its later tracks, as if the band was swimming somewhere, but stopped to tread water before arriving. To a certain extent, Cookie Mountain suffers from repetition by the end, even before the three bonus tracks arrive. The noisy guitars of the eight-minute "Wash The Day Away" too closely resemble "I Was A Lover" and "Playhouses," but the song nevertheless feels conclusive. TV On The Radio previously seemed content to roam the open horizon; here, it's intent on exploring the far side. The journey is, once again, enthralling.