The 3D Toy Story-from-hell cover art for Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ new album, Mosquito, shows a crying nude baby getting pinged by the blood-sucking insect. It’s jarring, uncomfortable and makes one feel itchy all over. Unfortunately that depiction doesn’t quite match the mood of the resulting set of songs on the New York City band’s fourth album.
With TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek (and James Murphy for one song) working production, there is a much heavier emphasis on atmospherics as they float further from their scorched rock roots. Many of the bands to rocket out of Brooklyn and reach maximum fame in the early 2000s have had difficulty regaining their creative footing. YYYs are no exception.
After the very promising and end-to-end catchiness of Show Your Bones in 2006, the YYYs phoned it in three years later for It’s Blitz. In the years since, the members took an unofficial hiatus working on various projects, soundtracks and other artists’ records. It was almost a surprise that they came back with new material at all. These days it’s better to fade away than burn out, I guess.
The album starts off strong and at first insists on being a classic. “Sacrilege” is a perfect first single and instantly works its way into the listener’s brain. Drummer Brian Chase clamps down on the bell of his ride cymbal while Karen O blurts about forbidden love. It rocks and swivels. It exudes the sound they were destined to arrive at once their punk spirit drifted: full of life, poppy, hypnotic and daring. Ending with the buzz of a soulful choir is the curveball they should be taking by this point in their thirteen-year career and it works to the fullest. Regrettably, the song stands erected at the top of a pyramid and the album only dribbles to the bottom from there; each song less and less inviting than the one before.
Mosquito was recorded in a few new locales for the band, including New Orleans and Texas. Seems they miss their homeland. On “Subway” Karen O loses, then seeks to recover love on a New York City subway car. It’s a slow motion ride through lonely underground tunnels of the Big Apple. It has a late night/early morning sobering effect. The openness of the track is strung together with ghostly train track rhythms and waves of synths slowly crest, then drown Karen O out. “These Paths” is all looping electronics and by the end devolves into a tame Crystal Castles track. The guest rap by Dr. Octagon on “Buried Alive” comes from nowhere while the band fades two levels back into the mix.
A few songs do line up with that authentic YYY’s attitude and no doubt they’ll bash them relentlessly live and hype the crowd. If you can beef up your set list with a few new songs for each touring cycling, that’s all that really matters. They’re still one of most exciting acts to witness today. “Mosquito” is the band’s first attempt on the album to bring themselves back to 2003. Against Chase’s foot-down pound, Karen O shouts about life as the beady-eyed prick bug. For “Under the Earth” Karen O sought a roots reggae sound. “Down, down under the earth goes another lover,” she sings, uncaringly, to a pretty sweet groove that glides along with incoming and outgoing noises, plus the knock of a wood block. This could be the blueprint for a future sound. Guitarist Nick Zinner and Chase work well together on “Slave” as it opens awash in echoed effects then slams into a tough, bombastic romp.
Karen O’s voice still has those same exuberant Billy Corgan-levels, going from soft sympathetic nance, to whiny, misunderstood girl, to a tough beer-soaked bark. She is still one of the best female vocalists of this generation, but she doesn’t bleed and sweat for her main act anymore. The songs lack a lyrical depth. There is no single mood for the album and the bottom-half is bogged down with overly saturated love songs. Most the songs start off promising with a pummeling guitar lick and Karen O erupting in spurts like a banshee, but it seems the band creatively didn’t know where to take the songs and just wound up lathering them up with effects.
In the end, the album just doesn’t hold up. It’s not down on its knees begging the listener to come back for multiple listens. It doesn’t make one want to punch out a plexi-glass window or rip their shirt down the middle. Their earlier records relied on pure energy to make it through the track list. Record now, think later. That is no longer the case.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs appear to be going more for a sonic onslaught of sound these days, possibly to fill in the gaps of their weak songwriting. It’s an obvious path for a band that grew up fast with snotty, punk-spit intentions, and surely it’ll afford them new rabid fans, but, one only wishes they busted out a few more basement burners like Fever To Tell, before moving on. Mosquito could be the album that comes halfheartedly, but then fuels the next definitive output that pulls them from the bog, but only time will tell.