TV On The Radio find themselves in a tough position. Seeds is their fifth album, and their first since the death of bassist, Gerard Smith. Both of those are moments of crisis for a band - the fifth album signals the beginning of the perilous middle age of a music career; the death of a band member is obviously a personal, as well as a musical, crisis. They have been a band long reliant on a disjointed kind of groove, a weird ability to propel songs through chaos. Smith’s bass was at the heart of this, tying everything together, right there with the fury and invention of the early days. Now they have to adapt to the loss of both, and the result is an album that is only fitfully successful.
They are much younger men, but if I had to draw a recent comparison I’d say that Seeds is perhaps closest to U2’s much-maligned (but actually sort of alright) Songs Of Innocence. Both come in moments of crisis of identity – old fans losing interest, new fans not getting the appeal – and the bands have to face that change is an inevitable, if difficult to swallow, reality.
Both were also preceded by shocking singles. The Miracle Of Joey Ramone and Happy Idiot are both those weird kind of songs that are catchy in the most offensive way possible. Happy Idiot is marginally less obnoxious, but that’s also because it’s more boring.
It, like much of the album, is polished to the point of being soulless. There’s no drive, no passion, and instead the album finds itself entirely reliant on the kind of latent menace TVOTR nailed on earlier albums. Slower, more melancholy moments just don’t work for this kind of band; especially when the vocals are as restrained as they are here. The opening duo – Quartz and Careful You – stir up false hope by capturing the former with such aplomb you’d think nothing had changed. Well, sort of. It’s still noticeably different – cleaner, more synthy – but feels less jarring and more like a genuine synthesis of old and new sounds.
What stands out most obviously is the lack of guitar. Or rather, the restrained, controlled, segmented approach to it. Much like their disharmoniously harmonious vocals, a staple of TVOTR was a messy, distorted wash of guitars. Elements overlapped, collided, merged; but now everything is eerily spaced out. Their last album, Nine Types Of Light, was similarly atmospheric and spacey, but it felt like a cohesive band taking things slowly rather than the over-produced individuality that characterises Seeds’ soundscape.
It’s here that the absence of Smith’s bass really resonates. There’s an empty space – an eerie absence – at the spine of every song. I’ve listened hard to see if there even is any bass on the album and, for the most part, I’m not entirely sure. It’s there on the opener, Quartz, and briefly returns at the album’s close, but otherwise it seems either absent or substituted by synths. Elsewhere, they attempt to compensate with bigger percussion, but it doesn’t entirely work, instead adding to the over-produced feel.
I feel bad being so down on Seeds. It must have been a tough album to make, and there’s a dignity in its almost elegiac tone of optimism tinged melancholy. It feels like an attempt at truly moving on, which should be admired. It’s almost romantic. But the fact it’s kinda boring is the only real take-away from the album.
What may be saddest is that the moments I really like are the most nostalgic. Quartz’s opening calls back to the opening lines of their peak – Return To Cookie Mountain – and has the same feel of stone cold classic, DLZ; Winter has a roughness and bite that feels distinctly familiar; Right Now has a sadder twist on Dear Science’s funk and weird danceability; and album closer, Seeds, ends with a sea of wailing guitar that feels so vintage it’s almost sort of heartbreaking.
That last song sums up so much of the album – and not just because it’s titular. It’s frustratingly conventional at times, led by synths and some sad piano that feels jarringly middle of the road, it has vocals that aren’t really all they should be, and it’s just missing some vital spark. And then, somehow, it shakes off all that. The last two minutes take off into something beautifully sad. With that guitar to steer them home all feels right. The vocals, freed of having to carry the song, blend into just another layer of airy longing. Bass rumbles in the gaps, suddenly emerging from hibernation. The piano and synth become the tasteful flourishes that have been a staple of TVOTR’s expansive palette for years. Everything gels. A soul comes out.
In those moments I want to love Seeds. I want it to be a sad ‘one step forward, one look back’ kinda album. I want it to stir up memories as it shakes them off. I want it to remind me that they’re still a great band. It does, but it just makes me want to listen to something better that they’ve already done.