FOR this, their fourth studio album since Fever to Tell precisely a decade ago, something has changed in the timbre of advance coverage afforded New York power trio Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ return, and it’s not just down to formerly jet black-bobbed singer Karen O’s striking new bottle-blonde hairstyle, rendering her at once almost unrecognisable yet as unimprovably stylish as ever.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Mosquito
For a band who were stateside contemporaries of – if not necessarily spiritual brethren to – the Strokes, LCD Soundsystem and the White Stripes, it seems the eternally voguish YYYs are the unlikely survivors from that bunch, neither defunct as the White Stripes and LCD are, nor as creatively moribund as the revenant Strokes.
O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase have never been megastars, but they’ve never been creatively written off either, and this relative under-the-radar quality has allowed them to evolve into a band with a commendable recorded past and the sense their well-tested creativity will result in many more highs to come.
Mosquito, it’s worth pointing out from the start, has one of the worst sleeves you’re likely to be exposed to this year, a computer-generated cartoon of a shock-haired infant being menaced by a giant purple mosquito whose stylised, slime-dripping logo gives it the impression of being a novelty punk record of the early 1980s. The questionable sci-fi fixation extends to the song Area 51 midway through, a rattling but tame imitation of the group’s post-punky early work melded in some alien laboratory with the Rezillos. It’s the only low point, fortunately, on a record which is wildly diverse but utterly in harmony with the band’s tarnished and occasionally tear-stirring post-punk-pop aesthetic.
In sharp contrast to the exhausting, adrenaline-infused energy of their brilliant debut, Mosquito is measured and occasionally shot through with a steady sense of calm that belies the sheer weight of hurt and anger which O can push from her voice at its most powerful.
The opening Sacrilege is one of the first very big wrong-foots on the album, starting with a sparse layer of slowly-strummed guitar notes and twitching drums as O’s familiar croon/holler bemoans an ill-chosen relationship. By the end it’s gone somewhere entirely unexpected, into full-blown gospel choir backing and what sounds like the most expensive production this band have ever placed upon a song.
Whether the bombastic method of delivery rather than the song itself is the star here, the following Subway is an understated wonder which sets a sense of place and emotion perfectly. “I lost you on a subway car,” begins O, her voice a sad lullaby set against the slow sway of an underground carriage in the background, and the song never loses pace with this stirringly realised sonic tableau as Zinner’s guitar and O’s words inch slowly, steadily towards the higher notes with a sense of inevitably frustrated yearning.
The title track is more typical Yeah Yeah Yeahs fare, a raw wail from O threatening “I’ll suck your blood!” over an even-handed garage rock shuffle, while Under the Earth shifts unexpectedly into dub reggae territory. It’s a hard style to pull off, but one which works here by virtue of keeping the affectation to a minimum save for the reverberating, Slits-style swoosh of effects applied to O’s voice and a languid, bassy groove from Zinner.
The majority of the record, certainly in its first half, works more as a collision of boldly varying styles and the irresistibility of O’s voice than it does as an exercise in classic songwriting, a juxtaposition which the no-more-than-decent retread of the classic Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound Slave and the soothingly hypnotic, house-tinged tones of the more satisfying These Paths flags up. Yet the whole affair comes most satisfyingly into its own in its closing stages, beginning with the one-off dream team-up of the band with producer James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem fame) on Buried Alive, a limber, sexual flurry of nightdriving guitars fused with the rapped vocals of special guest Dr Octagon. Its dreamy, lo-fi chime, therefore, is the incidental work of one of New York’s best but shortest-lived supergroups.
With Always the group step beyond the satisfying listening that has characterised much of the album thus far and towards adding to their already healthy canon of truly great work. A ballad of resonant warmth, it’s shot through with a sense that O is trying out her best Kate Bush impersonation, while closer Wedding Song is a just as achingly memorable but perhaps more traditional power ballad. The pair sandwich the tense slow-burn of Despair, which brings together a strident sense of acceptance as O hollers “Oh despair, you’ve always been there / you’re there through my wasted years … there’s nothing to fear inside” over Chase’s pounding drums.
On many levels it’s an odd record, seemingly unbound by a desire for commercial success, at least in respect of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ more typically catchy post-punk rockers. Yet in its more questing and experimental moments, and in the slowed-right-down phases of introspection, it’s an unquestionably powerful and unique work.