Yeah Yeah Yeahs: In Retrospect

In the wake of a fourth Yeah Yeah Yeahs album about a month ago, a look back over how it fits into their oeuvre seems somehow appropriate. It would be downright remiss not to.

Firstly a brief roundup of where Mosquito took us. I liked it without really falling head over heels for it, and played it repeatedly without really knowing why. Probably because it was an engaging listen on several levels; there is a nice reservoir of immediate standout tracks in there, a pocket of growers with a few songs confusing in their presence. Let’s tackle an example of each category one-by-one, beginning with the beginning and lead single ‘Sacrilege’. The real star of the show early on in the track ahead of the sledgehammering gospel grenade heralds the excellent outro is Karen O’s distant-mic’d vocal stings: “HALO! ‘ROUND HIS HEAD! Feathers in our bed… IN OUR BED!” she bawls before Nick Zinner’s wandersome lead guitar line trickles the listener through the chorus. An undulating bassline kicks in the second verse bringing extra movement, expanding well on the song’s main chord sequence. In hindsight the choral aspect of the song was an eyebrow-raising moment; whilst I presume none of us are idiots and can tell a build when we hear one, think back on the first time you heard that song and think on how much of a surprise it was.

As for a song that develops upon repeat listens, the Dr. Octagon collab ‘Buried Alive’ – featuring some scintillating production from former LCD Soundsystem mainman James Murphy – slunk up on me from an out-of-context disappointment to near-classic status. It is in many ways a typical Murphy pop song at over five minutes in length, with a sawing guitar riff from Zinner, a rollicking bassline piggybacking on a rolling drum track and O in stalking mode. By just halfway through the song has chucked a crackling intro, moody verse, Doc Oc rap and a chorus at you; it seems there is little else to give. But after calming down into a breath-grabbing wane the track coils to a close with an echoing extended outro where motifs become textures and textures resolve themselves ingeniously into riffs. It’s great work all around, with an oft-underused on this record Brian Chase looping himself to death, O opening up her throat thrillingly later on in the track and Zinner generally working brilliantly with Murphy to create a distinct atmosphere. I’m sort of not quite sold on Dr. Octagon’s rap, as impressively delivered and ingeniously syntactic as it is. The actual content (I believe at one point he rhymes “head” with “head”) I’m still unsure of; it’s a little off-the-shelf, and a welcome if not quite flawless return from the not-so good doctor.

On the negative front, I’d single out ‘Area 52’ which features a desperate opening line showcasing O’s lyrical stumbles in Mosquito. “Message came from outer space, future of the human race” simply deserved crossing out no sooner than it was written. In fact taken as a whole the track is something the band would struggle to find a home for on their past records. The opening drum fill, in a rare wobble from Brian Chase, is awful, heightening the cheesy kitchness of the track to unbearable levels. I’m sure YYY’s would argue that this is the effect that they were going for, but it’s not a pleasant one. O’s ridiculously affected intonation of the word ‘alien’ (“aylee-IN!”) does the track no favours whatsoever. As a representative of one of Mosquito’s more straightforwardly guitar-based tracks, ‘Area 52’ compares unfavourably with some of the more muscular material in the band’s repertoire (try ‘Rockers to Swallow’ from their IsIs EP for size), in terms of tone and content, it’s miles from their peak.

So it’s a troublesome conclusion to arrive at, but let me have a go for you. The bulk of the album frankly sounds like a band listening to a lot of Portishead. There’s a great record in here somewhere, it’s just not a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album. Where YYY’s really go for it, the results are often astounding, but the tracks that fall back on former glories come off more often than not as weak facsimiles, ‘Area 52’ being the chief offender. There’s no getting away in my mind from the fact that this is the band’s weakest album, despite its highs. But how does it fit into their overall output?

Well. First off, Mosquito pales horribly in comparison to It’s Blitz!’s rewarding experimentation. Much was made upon its release of that album’s studio-written status, something which is even more striking on Mosquito. Could the band have more closely considered how these songs would sound live, how its track will sit in future sets? The answer is they simply don’t. Check out recent Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ setlists and Mosquito barely figures, even at its own release party. Tracks like ‘Subway’, as effective as they are through headphones, are pretty much unplayable live. Whereas It’s Blitz! sounds like it hasn’t aged a day in the five years since its release. Blitz and Mosquito are clearly sister records, intentional or not, in the same way that Fever to Tell and Show Your Bones are. Each pair are cut from the same cloth; the earlier two punkish and guitar-based, the later experimental, synth-oriented affairs. To it’s enormous credit, there is not an ounce of fat on It’s Blitz!. From beginning to end, it’s an outstanding record that I could heap praise on until the cows come home, and then you’d have a job on your hands getting all those cows down from that praise-heap. Even its comparatively mediocre moments like ‘Skeletons’ are unrequited triumphs, dripping with ideas demanding repeat listens. And although Mosquito reveals itself more and more with each run through, its lesser tracks are simply that. I’m loathe to pick on it, but ‘Area 52’ is a b-side curio at best. The main problem however is there are too many mid-tempo trip-hop-lite mood pieces like ‘These Paths’ (which I do actually rather like, but the point still stands) and ‘Always’, and arguably ‘Wedding Song’, as admirable and fitting a closer as it undeniably is. Meanwhile, ‘Despair’ I’m sure would sound great live, and would have made the perfect closing track on Mosquito were it not for ‘Wedding Song’, which just could not be placed anywhere else on the album. Whilst the track closes the album on a far less strident note than ‘Despair’ would have done “In flames I sleep soundly, with angels around me” is a killer rhyme, which O seems capable of delivering at least once per album. In fact lyrics aside, Ms O provides highlights for plenty of tracks with her delivery, the title track being a particular case in point. When she squares up to the mic, bares her teeth and belts out the “Suck your blood!” lines in the chorus, the song absolutely comes to life. It’s far from a one-off either, the menacingly-delivered effects-laden lyrical hook of “Twelve tongues put a hex on ya,” in the bassy, snowy ‘Under the Earth’ being another instance that springs to mind.

Even at the time I identified Show Your Bones as a misstep, and I’m confused as to quite why it continues to be so well-regarded. To me it marks a point where YYYs morphed into a soundalike; they began to sound like an indie band in 2005 when the market was goddam saturated with the bastards. Whilst both Mosquito and Show Your Bones saw the band retaining an identity of sorts, YYYs are clearly uncertain and non-committal over exactly which direction to take on both records. Caught awkwardly between the noisy, torturous guitar tones of their early material and the experimentation they showed going forwards, Bones was frumpy and indistinct. It seemed a hallmark of a band proud of their aesthetic but wanting to evolve their sound in an era where bass guitar was the enemy. Bands and acts of that ilk generally made up with their four-stringed shoulder-monkey eventually, Yeah Yeah Yeahs more gradually than their peers. Show Your Bones was in fact a terribly misleading album title; it showed nothing of Yeah Yeah Yeahs bones at all, if anything it showed their cladding, their baggage. Fever to Tell was clearly the bones in terms of a blueprint. Wherever O & Co. have taken us since then has been anything but skeletal, frequently brilliant but stylistically at times fantastically wayward. Take their IsIs EP, steering the band towards their minimalist background after the total overload of Show Your Bones. Texturally Bones came across like sensory stimulation therapy compared to the excitingly sparse Fever. Sure, Fever to Tell was of its time (in which as mentioned before, bass was out of vogue and critics went bafflingly mad over bands with odd lineups like The White Stripes’ guitar-drums-vox or The Dresden Dolls’ piano-drums-vox), but for the most part it sounds an awesome departure radically out of step with most that preceded or followed it, even a decade on. The jazz-oriented drum patterns (try ‘No No No’s steel-wristed intro and verse), the frantically tremolo-picked guitar style and cacophonous, effects-saturated tone still sound fresh as a daisy. Of course Karen O takes centre stage (although you couldn’t quite imagine the Vivienne Westwood of indie writing “Boy you just a stupid bitch and girl you just a no-good dick” these days) with her unhinged delivery and gainy vocal tones sounding beautifully deviant. It’s a thick, unctuous coating on an album that already feels suspiciously sticky underfoot.

So where does Mosquito fit into all this? Where the album would imaginably contribute most effectively to the YYYs live set (hi there ‘Sacrilege’, ‘Under the Earth’, ‘Mosquito’), it’s great. And where it doesn’t, there’s plenty to keep you listening (hands up ‘These Paths’, ‘Buried Alive’, ‘Despair’). But whilst the mood pieces are clever, they aren’t particularly engaging, and compare really quite unfavourably with It’s Blitz!’s hooky extravaganza (sorry ‘Subway’, ‘Slave’, ‘Always’). It’s feast and famine in that It’s Blitz! really did spoil us, and unfortunately for Mosquito, whilst it is in the same league, it’s certainly battling relegation. So although Mosquito by no means deserves panning, It’s Blitz! deserves every accolade coming it’s way, and I doubt anyone in their heart of hearts could find a comparable amount of love for the band’s latest effort. Let me also point out that ‘Dull Life’ seemed to me to be the best meeting of early and later YYYs, an avenue the band choose not to explore here. And that’s fair enough. But there was unrealised potential, I feel, in the melding of Zinner’s chordy verses, strident lead sections and relative restraint absent from the tendon-snapping seizure of ‘Y Control’. Karen O was also on spectacular form there, at times whooping, at others keening, shining as a not only a frontwoman but a vocalist as she has done throughout her career. The closest Mosquito comes to repeating this is probably ‘Despair’, but it doesn’t share the same urgency or the immediate production of ‘Dull Life’, bubbling along as it does on a rather Nine Inch Nails beat (I’m thinking of ‘Mr. Self Destruct’, from The Downward Spiral).

Thinking back to YYYs stronger records, it’s almost as if the band know which tracks are the stronger on Mosquito and spend the entire album drip-feeding them to the listener. It feels a preparatory experience, as if easing you into a different era for the band. A lot of the album is very ambient, but where Mosquito diverges from this template it can sound a little too eager-to-please. There’s nothing as spiky or anthemic as their early days, nor is there quite the electroclash death disco of the previous albums’ widely-acknowledged high points. Where Mosquito is thrashing and noisy, it doesn’t feel so with the same abandon as in the past, with the band not quite willing to unleash their full fury. The percussive, delicate diversion of ‘Subway’ is just that, and bafflingly placed second in the tracklisting, inbetween the plainly stronger, more strident Sacrilege and the punchy title track It’s a departure for the band, and seems like a signpost (to proclaim ‘Look at this, there’s plenty more of the same later on!’) that the album would benefit without. Whichever way you cut it, Mosquito is Yeah Yeah Yeah’s weakest album yet. It fails to capture the buzzy, mashup atmosphere of their previous album, or the intentionally primitive arty splatterpunk of Fever to Tell. A broadly hit-miss-hit-miss track record however points to nothing but positive things in the future.

Karen O photo by photographer: DaigoOliva, contributor to Flickr. (http://flickr.com/photos/daigooliva/288067175/) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

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