Written by: Paul Gleason
Back in 2003, when Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their now-classic debut LP Fever to Tell, their rise to the top of the pops was as inexplicable as it was sudden. The New York city-based trio of singer and pianist Karen O, guitarist and keyboardist Nick Zinner, and drummer Ben Chase founded the band in 2000 as a minimalistic, avant-punk band, whose self-titled first EP wasn’t afraid to be abrasive and challenging. Remember O’s guttural screams on “Art Star”?
Who would have thought then that Yeah Yeah Yeahs could write strong, catchy singles like Fever to Tell’s “Maps” and “Y Control”? Who would have thought then that their second and third albums – 2006’s Show Your Bones and 2009’s It’s Blitz – would sell tons of copies and garner the band two Grammy nominations for Best Alternative Music Album?
Their first new album in four years, Mosquito marks Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ return to the record racks. And because their history since 2003 consists only of commercial and critical success, the band is under a lot of pressure to stretch their sound and, well, be themselves at the same time.
The album’s first single “Sacrilege” gets things underway – and it demonstrates Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ particular brand of unpredictability, as well as O’s charisma. The song is unsettling and catchy at the same time. The verses’ lines – as O sings them – alternate between pretty melodicism and punky shouts. And, if this approach to vocal melody and structure isn’t surprising enough, the choir-accompanied dance groove most certainly is. In fact, the recent performance on the Late Show with David Letterman is worth watching on YouTube if you missed the original broadcast.
“Under the Earth, “These Paths,” and “Buried Alive” indicate the same creativity as “Sacrilege.” “Earth” and “Paths” showcase innovative electronic beats and O’s ever-expanding vocal range, while “Buried Alive” is an ominous tune, courtesy of Zinner’s intense guitar, O’s discomfiting lyrics, and a rap by the somehow still underrated Dr. Octagon.
The ballad “Subway” shows the wide-ranging direction of Mosquito. Its minimalism contrasts sharply with “Sacrilege” and the record’s other heavily layered tunes. The sound isn’t as dense, with O and Zinner executing elegant and sparse vocal and guitar melodies, which Chase backs with some terrific beats.
But “Mosquito,” “Slave,” and “Area 52” sound like what we’ve come to expect from Yeah Yeah Yeahs – and, perhaps, take for granted. They operate as dance-oriented hard alt-rockers, with O, Zinner, and Chase creating accessible tunes that they’ve managed to make into, to quote Kurt Cobain, radio friendly unit shifters.
Mosquito concludes with three lovely ballads that harken back to “Subway,” the album’s second track. “Always” and “Despair” mine the same territory, with the latter picking up in raw power as it builds to a climax that includes yet a great Zinner guitar blast.
But “Wedding Song” is special. It’s simply a gorgeous love song. O sings the most tender melody and lyrics of her career – and Zinner’s guitar solo is astonishingly lyrical.
Mosquito satisfies because it’s the kind of record that Yeah Yeah Yeahs should be making at this point in their career. It grounds itself in familiar alt-rockers, includes some of the most stunning balladry of the band’s career, and takes the listener to new places. It by no means competes with David Bowie’s The Next Day, The Knife’s Shaking the Habitual, and James Blake’s Overgrown as an early contender for the year’s best album, but it’s nevertheless the next step forward for a tremendous band.