The greatest trick the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ever pulled was making us believe that they were a rock band.
Of course, you wouldn’t believe that listening to their early work. That eponymous EP from 2001 (followed by the gritty Machine EP the following year) showed a fresh young trio that seemed ready to remake CBGB in their own art-punk image, all while riding the brilliant garage-rock wave of the early aughts. While their early blown-speaker wailings weren’t necessarily everyone’s cup of ink-black tea, few could deny the band’s undeniable ability to craft cohesive, memorable songs out of some in-the-red fuzzed-out anarchy. Thus, by the time their debut—2003’s Fever to Tell—came out, the Yeahs slowly began winning over fans from all corners not just with their go-go six-string scorchers (although tracks like “Date with the Night” kept the early EP fans happy, make no mistake), but also their remarkably succinct ear for a pop melody. While “Maps” was the big hit, it was the brilliant hookiness of “Pin”, “Y Control”, and the haunting “Modern Romance” that ultimately made people realize this band wasn’t some roaring monster to be afraid of: they were actually the cool kids that you wanted to hang out with (once you got to know them).
Following the “almost-a-Karen-O-solo-album” drama that resulted in the brilliantly flawed (and largely acoustic) Show Your Bones, the band gave up the ghost altogether with 2009’s It’s Blitz!, an album that showed the Yeahs’ 100% giving over to the idea that they wrote pop songs first, added guitars second (if at all). Some fans—although delighted by the white-knuckle valentine that was the blistering Is Is EP in 2007—completely abandoned ship upon hearing the deliriously hooky (and overwhelmingly synth-y) “Zero” as Blitz!‘s lead single, but it’s a shame that they did: It’s Blitz! was an absolutely stunning pop album, with songs like “Skeletons” and “Hysteric” ranking right up there with “Dudley” and “Cheated Hearts” as some of the band’s finest melodic moments. Their guitars had been traded in for keyboards, but the band underneath the makeup was still the same: Karen O, Nick Zinner, and Brian Chase were making songs on their own terms, all while maintaining a loyal fanbase and somehow inexplicably getting mashed up with Michael Jackson in a really-weird Glee cover that still hasn’t been fully figured out.
So with its attention-grabbing cover art and incendiary lead single, Mosquito seemed well poised to be the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ big compromise: a fluid mix of their pop-song instincts and their undeniable rock chops that haven’t been seen since the days of Fever to Tell (something that’s further underscored by the timing: Mosquito was released two weeks shy of Fever‘s 10-year anniversary). The result, however, isn’t anything like that. In fact, Mosquito is without question the single worst album the band has ever released.
Mosquito‘s flaws are numerous, but the root of the band’s problem is actually quite simple: amidst the Yeahs’ excessive exploration of color and texture—no doubt wanting this album to have just as unique and distinctive an aural palette as all their previous full-lengths have—they neglected to tie any of these discoveries into any cohesive forms. From a production-standpoint, Mosquito‘s tracks are expansive and big-sounding in a way that their previous songs haven’t been, but rarely does this flex of stadium muscle seem to be backed by any sort of intention or motive; at its worse, Mosquito feels like a slapdash collection of songs for songs’ sake.
Just take the title track for example: although it’s flooded with tribal drumming (bringing back immediate echoes of ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s “Wasted State of Mind”) and a nice little chorus riff, Karen O’s lyrics are remarkably indistinctive: “Mosquito sing / Mosquito cry / Mosquito live / Mosquito die / Mosquito drink / Most anything / Whatever’s left / Mosquito scream,” all before launching into a chorus that consists of nothing but the line “I’ll suck your blood!” It’s a weak metaphor, no matter how amusingly O manages to imitate a mosquito sound post-chorus. Only during the bridge does the imagery float around any sort of meaning (“They can see, but you can’t see them / So are you gonna let them in? / They’re hidin’ beneath your bed / Crawling between your legs / Sticking it in your vein / Were you itchin’ when they called your name?”), but even then, the song feels loose and unfocused in a way that previous Yeahs songs were not.
That being said, it’s hard to come down hard on the band’s songwriting given that their biggest hit is circled around the line “They don’t love you like I love you / Ma-ah-ah-ah-aps,” but even that single could justify its minimal use of words due to the drama invested in the arrangement and presentation. On the opposite end of the quality spectrum, “Area 52” is a song about aliens that feels like a distant melodic cousin to No Doubt’s own “Staring Problem”: all goofy pretense and not much else, a C-grade entry in a Songwriting 101 class final that makes Ducktails’ ridiculous “Planet Phrom” seem metaphorically deep and profound by comparison. Meanwhile, the grinding “Buried Alive” proves to be a slice of carnival-industrial music that circles the same melody over and over with hardly any variation, all capped off with a Dr. Octagon cameo that, while certainly welcome simply due to the lack of Dr. Octagon in our lives, still feels shoehorned in without much rhyme or reason.
Yet in listening to the fuzzy synth flutters that dominate “These Paths” or the understated guitar work that underlines “Subway” (which—in one of the albums most clever moments—uses the clattering of subway wheels on tracks as its percussion), a strange feeling washes over you: never have Nick Zinner and Brian Chase sounded so tertiary. This feels less like the work of a band than it does the sound of a construction project, a clattering of ideas that were tossed together just because. Zinner—one of rock’s most fascinating guitarists—has his ample fretwork buried so low in the mix that it feels closer to the work of a studio musician than it does that of a core band member, which might be fine or excusible for some, but by leaning ever further into that realm of studio anonymity, the band as a whole loses some of its personality. While this album is even more professional-sounding than Blitz!, the melodies simply do not pop, which ultimately makes the build of “Despair” sound predictable, the dreamscape keys of “Always” sound forgettable the second the song is over, and “Under the Earth” sound like a watered-down remake of an earlier, better Show Your Bones-era Yeahs song.
While this entire sandwich of sound remains remarkably hard to digest, the band still manages to pull off two moments of greatness, and it just so happens that they open and close the album. “Sacrilege” is a top-shelf lead-off to the album, the song shimmering with tension as small sonic touches and cinematic effects slowly build in from the four-note bass line, with Chase’s drum work providing the ample propulsion that is otherwise missing from the rest of the album’s high-energy numbers. While the choir at the end is a bit overblown, it’s an effect that ultimately works, elevating O’s tale of sin with an angel to something that feels unholy and so right at the same time, the track exuding a glorious inner-tension that is missing from the rest of the the album. On the flipside, the plainly-titled “Wedding Song” rides a pummeling bass pulse into what actually turns out to be a sweet, rather heart-warming ballad. The arrangement is simple (bassline, a few piano pounds on the side, lots of effects encompassing everything else while Chase’s drums quietly sneak in), but the lyrics are not only on par with the band’s best work, they at times even exceed it:
With every breath I breathe
I’m making history
With your name on my lips
The ages fall to bits
In flames I’ll sleep soundly
With angels around me
While the song builds and rises to a climax, it never fully gets there, O’s tale of to-be-promised love fading out right before any sort of emotional breaking point. It may miss out on some of the catharsis that has become a trademark of the Yeahs’ best ballads, but it hits an emotional tone that feels more measured and personal than all-encompassing, making for a rather lovely coda to the album.
Yet what’s perhaps most frustrating about these bookends is that while the band’s craft is exquisite and their execution on these two songs hits all the right marks, they stand out so far above the rest of the album that you can’t help but wonder what Mosquito could’ve been. They very well could’ve taken the pop music mastercourse that was Blitz! and tossed it in the mud and wrestled around with it a bit, but the Yeahs’ curiosity ultimately got the better of them, and what we’re left with is an album that bears a lot of attributes with the creature it’s named after: it doesn’t follow a set path, makes a lot of noise in your ears, but its ultimately something you’ll want to swat away and get rid of because of just how badly it annoys you.
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// Notes from the Road
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