The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always worn their ambition lightly. You don’t put a giant purple mosquito on the cover of your record if you’re straining to be taken seriously, but at the same time you don’t stage an opera unless you believe you have something to say that can’t be contained in a three-minute pop song. The tensions that define the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—mass appeal vs. regional fame, punk spirit vs. theatrical style, fashion vs. art—are classic rock and roll problems, which makes sense because Karen O is a classic, almost painfully archetypal rock and roll star. Where their early ’00s New York “saviors of rock” peers either wilted in the face of stardom (the Strokes ), repeated the same tricks to the point of irreverence (Interpol) or gave up (RIP LCD Soundsystem), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (along with TV On The Radio ) have endured. Mosquito, the band’s latest album, is a strange, twitchy record, the type of thing you get to make when you’re the last survivor of an epic battle and you’re too traumatized to take a victory lap.
After the egg-splattering, head-rolling synth-rock makeover of It’s Blitz, Mosquito is much harder to classify with a singular genre description. It’s eclecticism recalls the grab-bag ingenuity of the band’s EPs, particularly 2007′s revelatory Is Is EP, but here the elements are less gnarled and raw. Working with producers Nick Launay and Dave Sitek, the band now moves with an almost Terminator-like sense of purpose and confidence. There’s nothing tentative here. Where their previous albums often thrived on coiled intensity and the occasional impassioned release, Mosquito finds the trio of O, guitarist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase pursuing wild ideas and possibly embarrassing decisions with an almost wicked glee, like children squashing bugs on the sidewalk.
That cheeky exuberance is palpable from the first track, “Sacrilege,” where O envisions an intimate tryst with a heavenly being: “Fallen for a guy/Fell down from the sky/Halo round his head/Feathers in our bed.” Touched By An Angel, indeed. The song then builds to an almost orgasmic, Rolling-Stones-gone-post-punk finale with a church choir calling out to the sky, turning O’s pained cries into a reverent plea. It’s not at all indicative of what the rest of the album sounds like, but how could it be? It’s a flaming gauntlet thrown down from high atop a mountain. The only way to go is down, and down they go, following up the song with a trio of subterranean experiments (“Subway,” “Mosquito” and “Under The Earth”) that shudder and murmur with a paranoid menace. As the album builds, O stands at the center of it all, wailing beautifully about captivity (“Slave”), devotion (“Always”) and a flimsy pair of pants (“These Paths”). Even when Kool Ketih, in his Doctor Octagon persona, takes the mic from her on the James Murphy-produced ’90s genre-splice experiment “Buried Alive,” her persona lingers over the track. “Free yourself,” she sings. “That leash is long gone.”
For all the complex, maximalist production, the songs have a simplicity to them that’s often clearly announced in their titles: “Subway” features the repetitive click of a train, “Under The Earth” sounds like it was recorded in a bomb-shelter, “Area 52″ is a scorched earth War Of The Worlds meltdown. The science-fiction elements and monster-movie imagery give the record a vibrant, cartoon aesthetic, but there’s still an emotionally fraught, wounded romanticism at work. “Despair” is probably the closest the band has ever come to recapturing the bewildering magic of “Maps,” a song that has withstood a decade of montages and Guitar Hero versions but still retains its power. Here, O sounds bewildered and lost, calling out to “Despair” itself, as if reading an ancient ode. “If it’s all in my head/There’s nothing to fear, nothing to fear inside,” she sings. “Through the darkness and the light/Some sun has gotta rise.” The song rips open at that exact moment, Chase’s drums rattling and echoing, Zinner’s guitar moaning and shimmering in equal measure. It’s a perfect, timeless scene.
Despite nods to hip-hop and dance music, the album still feels like a relic: It’s a big art-rock album unafraid of looking stupid. The jagged swoon of Chase’s drums and Zinner’s guitars often sound like the Smashing Pumpkins playing a dance party on an asteroid. Launay and Sitek fill every song with goofy little details to find on your fifth or sixth or 80th listen. O threatens to suck your blood and zzzzzs like a mosquito at one point. This is out-there stuff. Zinner and O told Spin that they drew inspiration from Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and while the record lacks West’s taste for prog-rock and his self-lacerating bravado, it has a similarly mischievous spirit. For all its ambitious digressions, conceptual gambles and silly experiments, it’s that spirit of adventure that makes the album so visceral. And really: What’s the point of surviving for so long if you can’t get a little crazy?