Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes Turns 20

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Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes Turns 20


They were bigger than the room. That’s what I remember. TV On The Radio came through Baltimore a couple of months after they released their full-length debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, and they played at a DIY venue that I’m pretty sure was a converted auto-body shop. (That venue, like so many other Baltimore DIY spots throughout history, did not last long.) TV On The Radio had just added a couple of new members, and they were still learning how to be a band. But they overwhelmed.

The night itself is a blur. I can only call forward fragments. Katrina Ford, from local openers Birdland, coming onstage during “Staring At The Sun” to howl in the background, just as she’d done on the record. Jaleel Bunton, who must’ve just joined TVOTR, dancing out in the crowd when he wasn’t playing drums. Tunde Adebimpe’s face, sweaty and scrunched-up. More than anything, though, I remember the waves of noise that seemed to levitate the room, the crushing force of all that sound. It’s still my favorite TV On The Radio memory.

TV On The Radio were not an unknown band when they rolled into Baltimore. They had local connections — Dave Sitek is a Maryland native — and there was already excitement around them. Less than a year earlier, TVOTR released their Young Liars EP, which blew minds. They were getting press, and much of that press was pegged to their identity as part of the Brooklyn indie boom. Sitek produced the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever To Tell album, and TVOTR seemed to move in impossibly cool circles. But the people who played that auto-body shop on that night didn’t carry themselves like cool New York indie rockers. They carried themselves like people who were interested in transcendence, which is what they were.

With the Young Liars EP, TVOTR found transcendence. That thing is just about perfect. The title track, still my favorite of the band’s songs, is a blistering, towering anthem. Play it loud enough, in the right frame of mind, and you might feel like you’re being swept off to another galaxy. The first time I heard Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, I was slightly disappointed that there was no “Young Liars” on it. The songs didn’t work as anthems. Instead, they were fraught, freaked-out, heavily textured stress-meditations that offered precious little catharsis. But when heard on the right night in the right crumbling American city, those songs were just as powerful as anyone could’ve hoped.

TV On The Radio were always a band pushing against the tyranny of context. When their name first started getting critical traction, you’d see some of the same stock phrases repeated over and over. The concept of a mostly Black indie rock band was treated as a novelty, rather than as lived experience that drove the kind of music that they made. Plenty of critics were also quick to stamp “American Radiohead” on them — the kind of branding that’s both laudatory and restrictive. (People also compared them to Peter Gabriel a lot? Rock critics, man. We’re all fucking weirdos.) Could TVOTR be a cool New York band while also making the kind of frantically anguished post-9/11 music that all the other cool New York bands so studiously avoided? This seemed like a contradiction. Everything seemed like a contradiction.

On Desperate Youth, an album that’ll turn 20 on Saturday, TV On The Radio embraced contradiction. They sounded vast and intimate, purposeful and lost. You could hear tremendous ambition in Adebimpe’s soaring vocal melodies, but Sitek’s layers of industrial noise seemed to work against that ambition. Before recording their album, TVOTR added new member Kyp Malone, whose falsetto wails added new vocal dimensions but whose compositional tendencies pushed the band even further into abstract realms. You could get lost in all of the record’s waves of sound, but you still probably noticed that the best song on the album was “Staring At The Sun,” the only one that had previously appeared on Young Liars. They band must’ve agreed, since they made it the album’s only single.

Two decades on, it’s increasingly clear that TV On The Radio were wrestling with vast forces when they recorded Desperate Youth. Opening track “The Wrong Way,” with its free-jazz horn-wails and its low-end churn, is nothing short of a poetic evocation of the Black American experience. Its opening line: “Woke up in a magic n***a movie, with the bright lights pointed at me.” After a pause, Tunde Adebimpe adds the qualifier that those bright lights are a metaphor. They wouldn’t be for long. TVOTR were just starting out at the time, but they would receive much more attention in the years ahead. In the song’s lyrics, you can already hear Adebimpe’s discomfort at the idea of performing for a mostly white audience: “When I realized where I was, did I stand up and testify?/ Oh, fist up signify?/ Or did I show off my soft shoe?/ Maybe teach ’em a boogaloo?/ Busy playing the whore.”

Elsewhere on Desperate Youth, TV On The Radio apply that same poetic eye to the justice system: “All men condemned by men to die/ Damned by blind bitch in hallowed halls/ Hear it, heed this call.” They indulge a fantasy that “we could all be so, so kind if you’d just leave your treadmill power trip behind.” They tell someone that “you were my favorite moment of our dead century” just a few years after that century died. But the best moments on Desperate Youth are still the ones where TV On The Radio cut against their own grandeur. That line about men condemned to die comes from “King Eternal,” a heaving epic that’s full of desiccated bass tones and stuttering 808s. But just as that track reaches its first climax, Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone undercut themselves, howling, “Cover your balls! ‘Cause we swing kung fu!” They almost dare you to laugh.

Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes is a messy album that’s full of big ideas — doo-wop vocals, skronked-out post-punk guitar tones, drum-machine stutters, prog-damaged organs. There’s doom and stress and significance all over everything, and the songs can’t always compete with all the atmosphere. But in all that textured roar, you can still hear joy that’s just waiting to burst out. A surprising number of the album’s tracks are just about wanting to fuck. That’s the entire point of “Wear You Out,” the seven-minute closer that practically goes over-the-top with sheer horniness. Adebimpe and Malone end the song by asking, again and again, if they can wear you out. It still sounds majestic and poetic and dark, but it’s also fun. That was in the mix, too.

Desperate Youth came out on Touch And Go, the historically important noise-rock label that was on the verge of shutting down forever. It got good reviews, and it won the Shortlist Music Prize, the short-lived American attempt to make our own Mercury Music Prize. (Desperate Youth beat records by the Killers, Ghostface Killah, Dizzee Rascal, and Buckethead. I lived through all this, and it makes absolutely no sense in retrospect.) Shortly afterward, TV On The Radio joined the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the Interscope roster, and they recorded Return To Cookie Mountain, their first real masterpiece. That’s the album where TVOTR figured everything out, where they translated all the free-floating ideas and feelings of Desperate Youth into something that could truly connect.

Today, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes sounds like a rough-draft attempt at something that the band would soon perfect. But there’s beauty in the first attempt, too. There’s urgency in failure. One night in Baltimore, I saw just how powerful TV On The Radio could be. That version of the band only shows up in fits and starts on Desperate Youth. But all that potential already swirled around in this primordial soup of a record.

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