Karen O is a very odd rock star. She became an icon without really doing the deep, conceptual work of coming up with a defined character to perform as, let alone tweak from record to record. She just sort of bounded to the stage in garish tangles of fringe and glitter, her crazed enthusiasm just a thin line from total collapse. She’s always had a dramatic quality, an instinct to dress up and make a spectacle of herself that feels weirdly like hiding rather than showing off. It’s not coherent, and never was. Just armloads of stuff, space singlets, funny wigs, a miner’s lamp, maybe? It’s felt like the work of a bored drama kid who found herself in her high school’s prop closet and decided to become a whole new being, if just for a second. To stave off perpetual anxiety by acting the part of some crazy person who could never feel anxious.
Her band, original Williamsburg gentrification totems Yeah Yeah Yeahs, released their fourth album Mosquito yesterday. It’s a record that strains at its own edges in that same unpurposed way, grabbing bits of anything—gospel choirs, found sounds, ill-fitting rap cameos—and just blindly mashing them in. A record as a Cold Stone Creamery cup. It’s actually their first album that fully sounds like Karen O looks on stage. It’s a pretty exciting mess!
Despite everyone just rooting for Karen to be the art-punk warrior goddess of our dreams, it became obvious pretty quick that her truest vocal talent was floating misty-eyed torchsong ache over her band’s slashing. “Maps”, “Cheated Hearts”, everything but the first two head-fake electro songs on It’s Blitz! The rough and tumble garage rock songs were the brave face, but the heartsick songs admitted it that it was all just an act. They were a supposedly too-hip band that routinely hit you right in the guts. As raw a performer as she is on stage, she’s also remained very elusive. That’s why she’s continued to be interesting.
YYYs Full Coachella 2013 Set
But the really interesting thing about Mosquito is that all of the psychoanalytical guesswork about Karen O’s real, true self is pretty beside the point in describing what’s good about it. It’s good primarily because it’s the YYYs record most concerned with rhythm, and most varied in delivering it. Sampled subway rumbles, broody DFA dance-punk, tribal flirtations, sequenced patches, live drumming; Brian Chase has been the overshadowed member in many a profile of the band, but the record more or less belongs to him. His clockwork shuffle on “Under The Earth” is a victory for martial restraint. They’re also more concerned with basslines than they’ve ever been (along with The White Stripes, they were case B in more than a couple “death of the bass” articles in the early 00s). The record feels rough and physical as a result.
They were tagged neo-post-punk from the beginning, but this is the moment where that early 80s art-collage instinct is easiest to see. They are weirding out after a few years of cleaning up. It makes for some uncomfortable moments, sure. I can’t fully defend the Kool Keith verse in the middle of “Buried Alive”, except to say that it can’t completely derail the dark forward momentum producer James Murphy establishes. (But shit, it’s way more committed than that Jay-Z verse on “Suit and Tie,” at least.) The moments when the record works least are its tries at old-school garage rock strutting. A few riffs and growls aren’t enough. A classic elegant KO vocal performance like the one on “Despair” remains evergreen, yeah, but it’s more of a cherry on top of the less conventional songs than a late-album savior. Karen admirably exhibits her underrated range, but it’s shocking how little of this unkempt record relies on her smeared-lipstick charisma.
Mosquito is certainly the most random album they’ve released, but somehow that feels true to the hodge podge they’ve always been. That they’re flailing around without an identifiable through line is more of a feature than a bug. The disappointed Pitchfork review, one of their classic “stop paying attention to this band….now” entries, seems off-base in suggesting that they’ve become suddenly uncool. Or really, even if that condemnation does ring slightly true (yellow fringe coats and Kool Keith cameos are not super of the moment, for sure), it seems wrong to suggest that being uncool is a bad thing for this band to be right now. They made the slick new wave record already, their pure art-punk EP (Is Is, you guys, so good!), their weird introspective campfire song sophomore album, and of course, their bruised garage rock debut. There was no obvious next move, short of transparent trend chasing. So they let their new record be anxious and restless and even a little square in its striving. It just goes to show they’re still searching instead of coasting.