Why TV On the Radio’s “Careful You” Is My Favorite Song of the Moment

I listen to a hell of a lot of music.  A metric crapton of tunage.  Even I’m amazed that I can remember half of what’s in my own collection, let alone remember the various songs I hear on the car radio or whatever station I happen to be streaming.  Lately I’ve been listening to RadioBDC (the online station created from the ashes of Metro Boston’s WFNX and owned by Boston.com) to get my head around more of the popular alternative rock again.

And every now and then, a track pops out at me that makes me take notice.  This happened in 2002 with Interpol’s “PDA”, in 1994 with Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun”, in 1988 with The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”, last year with Dutch Uncles’ “Fester”.  I can’t always say what it is that catches my ear–it could be the mix, the mood it creates, or even the dynamics of the song.  The song could be fast, slow, ambient, or loud, doesn’t matter.  It may not even click with me the first time…it may just happen to hit me at the right moment when I’m doing something else, or happen to be in a specific mood.

Such is the case with TV On the Radio, whose Seeds just dropped a few weeks ago.  I’ve been a fan of them since 2004 when they released their murky, weird debut Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. Not exactly a huge fan, as their earlier albums, while fantastic, are sometimes a bit hard to listen to, especially during writing sessions.  Seeds, on the other hand, is a much lighter affair, with poppier and catchier songs and a very crisp production.  And I absolutely love it.  [And it passed the test last night of being a great writing session soundtrack.]

So what is it about “Careful You” that I love so much?

On the surface, it’s no different than any other semi-electronic rock track out there by someone like, say, Bear in Heaven.  There’s echoey reverb, there’s a wobbly synth riff underlying the entire song, and the lyrics, while creative, are also economic in use.  It’s a love song, a plea made at the moment the relationship could go either way: don’t know/should we stay/should we go/should we pack it up and turn it around?  And he states his case right off the bat: Oui, je t’aime, oui, je t’aime/à demain à la prochaine. [Roughly, “Yes, I love you, tomorrow and the next (day).”]  The chord progression is simple but effective: a muted Eb/Db/Cm/B/Eb on the verses, and a ringing Eb/Bb/Db/Eb on the chorus.

It occurred to me after maybe the third or fourth listen: this is is a Beatles song, isn’t it?

Those chords are straight out of the Please Please Me songbook–that Cm-B-Eb passage in the verse is very much something Paul or John would have enjoyed back in ’63.  Tunde Adebimpe’s delivery of the lyrics are fantastic too, alternating loud and soft.  Verses, quiet: line 1 is given on beat, line 2 is double-time, line 3 is off the beat but never wavering far, and line 4 brings it back to the beginning, on beat.  Chorus, loud:  line 1 is high and on beat, line 2 descends triple-time (and phrased to drop the last beat), line 3 is triple time but ascending, with line 4 carrying the entire theme: I will care for you/oh, careful you.  John and Paul would have been amused by that wordplay.

Sonically there’s a lot of interesting bits going on in there as well.  Very low bass notes only show up on the chorus.  David Andrew Sitek shows up with his chiming guitar during the chorus, hitting only four high notes — Eb, F, F, Eb — but with the tone (deep reverb) and direction (ascending when the chords descend, and vice versa), it adds more energy to the section of the song.  Kyp Malone adds background harmony vocals throughout as well, but very sparingly, singing on octave in lines 1 and 2 of the lyrics, and only venturing into true harmony on lines 3 and 4.  His high-register delivery is often delicate, underscoring the lyrics as well.  There’s an odd sound drop too, right under the line things will never be the same, where we lose all music for those last few words.  If that’s intentional, it definitely works to drive the point home.  Finally, the coda holds the only change in melody: a repeating Gb/F/Eb line repeating with a sampled Tunde singing “no no no”.  It doesn’t so much fade or stop cold but falls apart, leaving us in the air–we have no idea if this relationship will be on the mend or not.

“Careful You” a wonderfully written, brilliantly produced track, and even if I’m not paying attention to all the bits and bobs that make up the track, it’s still an absolutely lovely song.

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