Not only are these songs about crushes, they feel just like one: emotionally intense, completely beautiful, and above all, fleeting.
For the past decade or so, Karen O, the lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has proven to be one of the most difficult-to-pin-down musicians not only in her native New York, but in the American indie scene as a whole. She can produce frantic rock barnburners like the YYYs’ “Sacrilege” and “Zero” or her cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo soundtrack. On the other hand, she can produce ballads of an intense intimacy and beauty like the YYYs’ universally-beloved “Maps” or her Oscar-nominated “The Moon Song” from 2013’s Her. So when she announced earlier this year that she’d be releasing her first-ever solo album, audiences had no clue what to expect.
What they got shocked even her most attentive fans. The simply-titled Crush Songs runs at only 25 minutes, with most songs being under two. The album’s cover and accompanying artwork all possess a hand-drawn, innocent quality similar to Juno. Sonically, the album goes far more lo-fi than any Yeah Yeah Yeahs release, with enough tape hiss and casual count-ins to make some listeners wonder if this were a demo tape accidentally released as an album. However, none of these traits detract from Crush Songs being the masterpiece it is and only add to its intense emotionality.
In a note released on her website, O revealed that these crush songs were recorded privately in 2006, in a period where she “crushed a lot” and “wasn’t sure [she’d] ever fall in love again". The 15 songs gathered here reflect that, almost all of which reflect on themes of passion and heartbreak. The sultry “Day Go By” pines “I really need my fix cause you got me so sick, I know that I’m burning for you." But this fire burns out quickly. In the bitter “Visits”, she sings “Cold, let her walk away / Young, never love again.” Lead single “Rapt” illustrates this cycle of falling in and out of love with the refrain “love is soft, love’s a fucking bitch".
In her online note, Karen O gives a sort of mission statement for Crush Songs: “…a soundtrack to what was an ever continuing LOVE CRUSADE. I hope [these songs] keep you company on yours.” She holds no stock in the clichés of fairytale love at first sight, living happily ever after, instead acknowledging that love is fleeting, beautiful, and yes, painful. The album opens with the beautiful “Ooo” right in the heat of a crush, singing “don’t tell me that they’re all the same / ‘cause even the sound of his name carries me over their reach / back to some golden beach /where only he remains." Few songs by any artist, male or female, capture better the raw thrill of infatuation. But she acknowledges later in the album how dangerous this thrill can be.
On the peaceful “Body”, she sings “If you love somebody, anybody / there will always be someone else / so make it right for yourself,” before ripping into a full-bodied shriek that lasts a good 15 seconds. At first, this outburst seems jarring against the almost lullaby-quality of the rest of the song, but the pure emotionality of O’s incredible voice makes it fit perfectly before dipping back into peacefulness. The final song of the album, “Singalong”, ends with O cooing out “I do” and slowly retreating into silence. This refrain shows a familiar situation to anyone who’s ever loved – that even after heartbreak, passion will always return, for better or for worse.
The greatest aspect of Crush Songs lies in its aforementioned casual nature. Every song sounds like they were done in one take on the simplest tape recorder, with only a few overdubs of percussion or backing vocals. No song overstays its welcome, with the shortest being only a scant 18 words long. The cover looks like Karen O could have drawn it herself on a napkin in a minute flat. The album itself then perfectly matches its subject matter. Not only are these songs about crushes, they feel just like one: emotionally intense, completely beautiful, and above all, fleeting.