CSS and the impressive reputation that they’ve garnered over the past couple of years can easily be attributed to their brash predilection towards genre-fusing dance numbers, cleverly ridiculous lyrical choices, a personality that is as genuine as it is juvenile, and an honest-to-goodness, balls-to-the-wall live show. It is a deceptively simple dynamic that is incredibly precious to the group’s staying power. While any band with a significant amount of hype should allow themselves some wiggle room on their much dreaded “sophomore” effort, balance between growth and recognition must always be considered. With Donkey, CSS walk this line, landing on the somewhat nuanced and sometimes dubiously progressive side of maturity — if just barely.
It’s not that Donkey is too refined or too immature — in fact, it’s as silly as Cansei de Ser Sexy probably by about half. No, the issue with Donkey is that it finds CSS building upon their established personality with the wrong kinds of elements. Granted, it is a well balanced waltz of sorts, but one has to question why this particular twirl needed to be taken in the first place.
One of the many charms of the band’s self titled debut was the way that it showed them completely embracing the bratty nature of their identity without slipping into some snotty, all too clever parody. It was goofy, complex, and flippant all at once making it surprisingly exhilarating. Donkey possesses similar strengths, but CSS have made a decidedly more refined attempt at finding the “art” in their petulance. While it doesn’t erase the good natured buffoonery that make CSS so charming, it’s a curious development nonetheless.
Donkey portrays CSS as both a band that is completely self-aware and one that is utterly aloof. It sounds remarkably interesting on paper, but Donkey remains slightly underwhelming in delivery. It not only lacks the flow of CSS’s debut, but also (shockingly) the variety. Adhering far more to traditional rock rules more often than not, Donkey‘s straight rock inclinations give the album drive, sure, but not much in the way of spirit. In comparison to most rock bands, this is as crazy as it gets; in comparison to CSS in the days of old, however, there are moments when it’s more like a black tie affair.
It’s not as if CSS have lost their identity, though. Donkey has myriad moments of digital decadence and synthesized debauchery; it’s just that the juxtaposition of those moments with their more straight-faced counterparts makes for an odd meeting. While there is nothing wrong, per se, with lead singer Lovefoxxx singing about domestic abuse on lead single “Rat is Dead (Rage)”, it is admittedly a far cry from music being her “hot hot sex.” The album’s tight melodies and harmonized fits of rage bring the sonic scope of the album into perspective, though, and a balance is reached between the complexity of CSS’s intentions and the simplicity of their delivery.
“We didn’t come into this world to walk around / We came to take you out!” says Lovefoxxx on album opener “Jäger Yoga”. Right off the bat Donkey is meant to be a call to arms of sorts; a statement that CSS is not content to be the silly little band you can dance to, but a force to be reckoned with…that you can dance to. They are not entirely successful in conveying this message — unless you count creating an unintentionally weird album with half-developed ideas set to Disco-punk — but there is something damn compelling about Donkey (as well as CSS as a whole) that makes it all so endearing, if not completely forgivable.
While the album is focused in its intentions but scattered in its creation, CSS put a lot of effort into keeping their role fresh — even as they sometimes hang by a thread. Donkey should probably go a long way in legitimizing CSS as a real presence in the rock world, while still lightly clinging to their reggae/funk/punk roots. Long time fans may feel the slight pangs of longing for their less distilled ventures into sonic schizophrenia, but Donkey is a marginally strong, albeit strange, gut check for a band that has a tendency to shoot from the hip and aim for the kill.