Pitchfork rating: 8.9
My rating: 8.7
I forgot how good TV on the Radio were, or are. I haven’t actively listened to them in at least five years probably and didn’t even listen to their latest album, Seeds. (Not out of deliberate avoidance, I just didn’t have the urge to hear it for whatever reason) Re-listening to their debut EP, Young Liars, was invigorating not only in how uniformly strong everything was but also how much ground is successfully covered in five songs (including one cover).
The opener, “Satellite,” with its harsh bass and drum machine programming marks Young Liars as not being as immediately accessible as TVOTR full-lengths such as Return to Cookie Mountain or Dear Science. Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals soften the density some, but even their introduction has an air of unease to them, with Adebimpe’s falsetto “oohing” sounding something like a siren. The sense of urgency in Adebimpe’s tone carries the song a long way. “Your voice was a satellite spinning next to me” is a line that could land like a satellite crash-landing on earth, but it’s superseded by Adebimpe truly selling every single moment. He never lets any of the dramatic flair of his performance devolve the song into self-parody either. I can’t think of too many bands that could juxtapose “la la” vocals with flute and make it sound this delightfully unsettling.
While Young Liars put TV on the Radio on the map, arguably one particular song can be given the bulk of the credit. “Staring at the Sun” might not have the bombast of later singles such as “Wolf Like Me” or the sheen of “Halfway Home,” but it’s the perfect TV on the Radio litmus test. It even takes a good amount of time before kicking into gear, treating us to more falsetto sighs from Adebimpe alongside Spanish audio samples. Once the guitar kicks into gear and Adebimpe opens his diaphragm as wide as possible to deliver his command: “Cross the street from your storefront cemetery/hear me hailing from inside and realize,” you realize you’re witnessing a song become better and better at every turn. Then, Adebimpe shifts into falsetto then back into a lower tone while furious drums tick like an analog stopwatch on the fritz. Even once you have your bearings, the syllabic crescendos of passages such as “Note the trees because the dirt is temporary” and the darkwave vibe of the whole affair that you don’t realize was subtly present the entire time should stun you a bit more. I may have just given a play-by-play of my reaction to this song, but doing so did nothing to take away from the magic of the whole affair.
Young Liars is full of romantic longing and no song sums that up better than “Blind.” The longest track by far at seven minutes, “Blind” makes use of every second. The ghostly synths and drum machine stomp have nothing in terms of dread on Adebimpe’s voyeuristic musings: “I seen a girl, with a guy/her hair like yours, from what I remember.” Even more unsettling than “Satellite,” “Blind” locks you into a world unsavory emotions and obsessive thinking. Even the hi-hats and relative redemption of concluding passage “Save yourself, I’ll save you all the time.” can only do so much to alleviate the disturbance created.
With a centerpiece such as “Blind,” it’s a relief to have Young Liars wind things down on an up note, or rather, a sense that all that has gone wrong is not forever. On the title track, Adebimpe sings “My mast ain’t so sturdy/my head is in half/I’m searching the clouds for the storm” against gentler drums and warm synths. In the chorus, he gives tribute to the titular young liars, without giving any hints as to what exactly they have done for him or what makes them any better than their dishonest elders. He does manage to offer romantic perspective that could have lessened some of the anguish of his previous narrators: “Fucking for fear of not wanting to fear again” which proceeds to send him on a trail of being struck by lyrical lightning, wherein every phrasing and syllabic emphasis fits with each drum hit like musical Tetris.
As strong of an ending that is, Young Liars keeps going, ending with a cover of “Mr. Grieves” by Pixies. Only this one is almost entirely a capella save for handclaps and faint bass. It’s an effective cover for a variety of reasons. One: it isn’t a faceless retread of a classic song. Two: it sounds fantastic with all the overlapping vocal tones. Three: after a series of songs full of uncertainty, it’s refreshing to hear Adebimpe have vocalized faith in something. Young Liars is a 5-song introduction to a band that seemed to be ready for anything from the very beginning.