The live antics of Karen O — mic-blowing, floor-writhing — made sure that Yeah Yeah Yeahs never spent much time toiling in obscurity. They also made her curiously easy to undervalue in the band’s first blush of success. The word of mouth went something like, “So there’s this amazing goth guitar player, and this terrific, nerdy drummer, and, uh, this girl who pours beer all over herself.” The sheer scope of her screech-to-purr-in-seconds-flat vocals was always impressive, but the shaky distinction between musician and “personality” was a pervasive subtext amid given praise. Almost a decade later, the band’s third album, misleadingly named It’s Blitz!, is carried primarily by her now emotionally nuanced and thoroughly professional vocals. With Nick Zinner banished from his guitar and Brian Chase often programming beats rather than pummeling them out, it’s tempting to dub it her record by default. But rather than a complete reorientation of the band’s sound, it’s an album that’s finally structured around her strengths as a singer; the misty-eyed ballad and the gliding pop song. The initial thrill of Yeah Yeah Yeahs was their raw intensity, coupled with a hot and bothered sexuality that was hardly subtle. The joy of It’s Blitz! is in its small production touches and underlying cool resolve. It lacks in danger, but its coziness is somehow more compelling.
The primary evidence for It’s Blitz!’s advance reputation as Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “electro record” are its first two tracks, which happen to be the two chosen by Interscope for preview consumption. “Zero” is built on nervous buzzes, synthetic beats and empathic nods to a generic outsider. It’s almost plausible as a dance-floor filler, but for most of its length feels like a fuse sizzling towards a mid-song boom. “Heads Will Roll” is the more compelling argument, a slick, throbbing New Wave single. The lyrical sentiments are vague (it’s about dancing, I guess) but tackled with an impressive variety of vocal approaches: she sighs, she shimmies, she aches, she swoops. As immediate as these two are, they’re a bit of a head fake, exposed by the superiority of the following, mid-tempo “Soft Shock.” Long-time pal Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio) and Arcade Fire producer Nick Launay guide a delicate, multi-layered sound that cleverly holds back the full force of its hazy 70s synths until Karen whispers, “louder…” and then here come the warm jets.
Again and again it’s the gilded torch songs that impress the most. The foreboding “Runaway” is beautifully uneasy, its cinematic dread conjured from the echoes of a grand piano and a vocal performance that straddles childish and world-weary. The closing “Little Shadow” is a lullaby much more successful than Show Your Bones’ “Dudley,” which actually cribbed its tune from one. The album’s, and possibly their career’s highlight is the penultimate track, “Hysteric.” As far as romantic lyrics go, the song’s Renee Zellweger-ian “you suddenly complete me” is no “they don’t love you like I love you,” but Karen’s reading is so sincere and lovely that it hardly matters. She sounds exhilarated to the point of exhaustion, ready to collapse into the warm bed of her lover’s embrace.
It’s Blitz! is by no means a perfect record. Its middle drags, held down by a couple more traditionally stomping rockers that suggest the change in approach was probably necessary. Its stab at neo-disco is neither as minimally cool, nor as convincingly hedonistic as the lights of that genre’s breadth. But, after the neither-here-nor there hodge-podge of Show Your Bones, it’s vital proof that Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a nimble creative force, and one of the 00s’ defining bands. Their longevity was always going to hinge on Karen O’s ability to grow into her spot at the band’s center, and she certainly has. Were she to scream a self-definition, just for old times’ sake, it’d have to go, “pop staaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrr!”
Elias Ronnenfelt has just shown up, 20 minutes into a 30-minute interview. I’ve been chatting pleasantly with the rest of his punk-rock band Iceage in their lightly disheveled Soho hotel room when he traipses in, pink-faced in a light leather jacket...