Did Spike Jonze get more than he bargained for when he approached Karen O with this project? Most signs point to yes. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman — and former lover of Jonze’s — made it a party, and just about everyone’s invited: bandmates Brian Chase and Nick Zinner, the Raconteurs’ Jack Lawrence, Liars’ Aaron Hemphil, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox — even an untrained children’s choir.
The album’s structural arc closely mirrors the film’s — a colorful, frenzied midsection, preceded and followed by sheer, wide-eyed tranquility. How odd, then, that Karen O’s forays into fear-tinged childlike wonder are most successful where the wild things aren’t — in the album’s most straightforward indie-pop numbers, from the bouncy “All Is Love” to the world-weary “Hidaway”.
Or maybe it makes perfect sense. O’s guestlist factors most prominently on the oddball excursions. And from the muddy, shrieking “Capsize” to the darkly feral “Animal”, they feel strangely fitting — logical, even — in the context of Jonze’s film. How could they not? Beneath the pop canvass, this is a soundtrack; as incidental music, these songs present the perfect cocktail of the innocent and the unsettling. But take “Animal”, for example: separate it from its cinematic context, its visual cues, and it’s stripped of meaning; the abrasive acoustic strumming, coupled with the singer’s groans, yelps, and percussive chaos, just sounds jarring — and not in an exciting way. “Capsize” suffers a similar fate. Well though it may serve in scoring Max’s voyage into the wilderness, here it falls flat. Maybe it’s the opening handclaps that reek of sterility; maybe the droning power chords are far too unimaginative a backbeat for Karen O’s cheerleader chants (“M-I-S-S M-E all you want / You’re gonna wait a while”). Either way, the result feels forced, like a decidedly ugly take on the Go! Team.
But this is a lot of dwelling on the negative, and there is much to be said for the record’s strengths. It’s something we know already: Karen O can write a song. A damn compelling song, too, and she doesn’t need bells and whistles to do so. Need proof? Try the joyous acoustic stomper “All Is Love” (later reprised as “Building As Is Love”); with its perfectly reckless children cheers and whistling solo, the well-picked first single sounds more like a a whimsical Feist than anything Karen O has been involved with.
And speaking of unexpected directions, has she ever produced something so un-self-consciously innocent as opener “Igloo”? The simplicity of its back-and-forth major chords and infectious hum-a-long melody calls to mind Kimya Dawson — until its sped-up reprise as “Sailing Home”, that is, which provides the soundtrack a gleeful, liberating conclusion.
Then there are “Hidaway” and “Worried Shoes”, two bits of sighing folk balladry. The instrumentation — a lulling sea of wobbly piano, acoustic guitars, organs, timpani, xylophones — is sheer Stonesy melancholia, providing a wonderfully organic base for Karen O’s most vulnerable vocals and lyrics. “Every step that I take is a larger mistake / I march further and further away in my worried shoes”, she sighs in the latter, a wonderful Daniel Johnston cover that the singer makes wholly her own. The lyrics fit wonderfully with the film — but both themes and music are compelling on their own. Where The Wild Things Are has much to offer fans of wide-eyed, unpretentious indie-pop, but I can’t help but wish that sentiment could be applied to the soundtrack as a whole.