What do we want from a sophomore album? I don’t just mean “we” to imply some vague, indeterminate listenership — I mean those of us who actively think about these things on more than an idle basis. Those of us, critics or armchair critics who take such questions seriously, who spend a lot of time thinking about this music and the people who make it, have redefined the common language used to discuss the music in such a way as to impact the creative process of the music itself.
Pop music criticism is nothing new but it’s only in the last decade or so that the rhetoric of pop criticism has actually taken on a life of its own. Whereas in the pre-Internet era the music scene was defined by such stalwart publications as Rolling Stone and SPIN (and Creem for the oldsters out there), as well as a number of smaller niche publications, the ubiquity of online commentary has caused two seemingly mutually-exclusive things to happen simultaneously. Firstly, the dialogue that surrounds the music has splintered and decentralized — whatever authority Rolling Stone may once have held has been demolished by the fact that anyone with a modem can speak for themselves if they feel their preoccupations are underserved by conventional media. But at the same time that the discussion itself has metastasized, spreading in every conceivable direction, the language we use has narrowed and focused to such a degree that any number of disparate outlets can reach strikingly similar conclusions without any previous corroboration simply by applying the same common rhetorical tools.
In other words, while the variety of voices has multiplied, the variety of opinions has not — or at least, not yet. There is still something of a herd mentality alive in the world of pop music fandom, and regardless of whether or not this makes any sense in a scene that supposedly values arch individuality and eclecticism above all other virtues, its a real phenomena that extends so far as to automatically negate most rhetorical inversion: after all, there is nothing more hip than going against the grain of popular opinion. It doesn’t take long for the wind to carry the scent of the reversal, and soon the entire herd knows which way to turn. One day the Strokes are unimpeachably cool, but by the next they have fallen into the realm of irretrievably passé.
The Strokes are a good example because they illustrate better than almost any other band the rules by which the new status quo operates. For one thing, they’re not really that popular. Sure, they sell a few albums, but lets face it, in the wider culture they are a definite niche product. The albums that sell millions of copies are not the albums which the current critical cognoscenti listens to — down here where the stakes are much lower it’s a lot easier to retain a sense of fannish possession. If the Strokes had sold ten million copies of Is This It? instead of merely going platinum, they would have succeeded in escaping the cruel, inexorable gravity of hipster criticism — the worst critical backlash can only hurt so much when you’re lighting your cigar with hundred dollar bills. But as it was, despite (or because of) the rapturous press that met Is This It?, it was inevitable that their sophomore record — Room on Fire — was going to be execrated. And sure enough, they were polite about it, but undoubtedly the critics felt a little bit embarrassed about going so far overboard for Is This It? and agreed (probably with no independent corroboration) that a correction was in order.
Which, on the face of it, didn’t make a lot of sense to me. Room On Fire wasn’t a perfect album, but it was good in a lot of the ways that Is This It? was good and even managed to improve on the template, providing tighter and decidedly more consistent songwriting throughout. But the real problem is that Is This It? wasn’t really that great a record to begin with. Oh, it was a good record, but ultimately no better or worse than any dozen college-oriented retro-pop albums released every year. The unique attribute which created the perception of is This It? and the Strokes in general as so overwhelmingly cool for their brief moment was the fact that they presented an almost frictionless facade at a time when the burgeoning hipster cognoscenti was casting about for something on which to expend their surplus verbiage. Writing about the Strokes in the beginning was so damn easy because they were endearingly empty, so plainly the result of their influences and so carefully anti-ideological that they represented the perfect hypothetical rock band, like the kind of band a critic would make up if they didn’t already exist — the kind of band that could serve as a mirror for the individual preoccupations of everyone who encountered them. So based on just a few songs the hype grew and grew until it reached mythical proportions, the excitement of a few influential critics spreading throughout the herd like wildfire. And then when time wore on and the seemingly endless potentiality of the group turned into actual reality, and the faces became recognizable and the band began to actually become something more than the sum of its potential, well… they’re not as cool now. First Impressions of Earth wasn’t a perfect album by any rate but it was very good, arguably more assured than either of its predecessors, and the lukewarm critical reception which met it is slightly disheartening unless you’ve already come around to the notion that the whole modern critical infrastructure, PopMatters included, is seriously flawed. Watch your backs, Arctic Monkeys.
Which brings us, in a roundabout fashion, to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sophomore release, Show Your Bones, which is only about two hairs-breadth away from being a masterpiece. In the beginning the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were seemingly conjured out of the thin air between fashion and hype, and much like the Strokes their early releases seemed to elicit excitement in inverse proportion to their substantiality. Hell, PopMatters‘ own Adrien Begrand began his 2003 review of Fever to Tell with the axiomatic (and, at the time, essentially correct) pronouncement that “[no] band has gone farther on as little actual musical output as of late than The Yeah Yeah Yeahs.” They released two EPs before the release of their first album (Fever to Tell) dropped in the summer of 2003, and the response was, if not quite glowing, predictably positive. But reading the reviews there seemed to be a sense of quiet, unstated disappointment on the part of those who had championed the group on the strengths of their first self-titled EP. There had been so much anticipation and hype that anything less than sheer unearthly brilliance represented a failure. Through little fault of the band themselves, the music press had shot themselves in the foot, backing themselves into a proverbial corner from which only a jaundiced disappointment would help extricate themselves.
If it hadn’t been for Interscope’s uncharacteristic patience and determination in breaking the underdog single “Maps” on MTV and radio, the album might easily have sank below the waters soon after its launch, joining the likes of the Vines and the Walkmen (remember them?) in the High Expectations Graveyard. But “Maps”, combined with an extremely aggressive marketing campaign moved copies of Fever to Tell (the album must have been marked down for the better part of a year at retailers like Best Buy, practically begging half-interested listeners to take a chance). Somehow through sheer force of will the group managed to establish themselves as more than just another flash-in-the-pan, done in by early expectations and monstrous hype. They had a career, they landed on the cover of SPIN, and as soon as they had succeeded in selling the first album, the battle lines for their second were already being drawn.
Show Your Bones, in any event, sounds very little like Fever to Tell. The rambunctious, ferociously energetic garage pop that formed the backbone of their debut is nowhere to be found. There is a discipline to the group’s sound now, a control that belies their chaotic origins. There are probably some who will be dismayed by this sudden transformation, wondering what the hell happened to the violence and licentiousness of tracks like “Date With the Night” and “Tick” — but as for me, personally, I am somewhat relieved. It had always seemed to me that the wild attitude Karen O. adopted for her stage persona was, to put it bluntly, a gimmick. It certainly made people pay attention. But now that they’ve got people’s attention, it was time for them to flip the script.
The album opens with “Gold Lion”, and a more visceral repudiation of their traditional sound would be harder to imagine. The song begins with the slow thump-thump-crack of a crisp drum kit, before Karen O.’s mellifluous voice enters, flanked by a softly strummed acoustic guitar. The track builds from quiet to loud in fairly short order, growing in intensity throughout the bridge and into the rousing, fiery chorus. The way the song builds while still remaining remarkably simple in structure is quite reminiscent of the Pixies, a group whose influence is felt throughout Show Your Bones. One of the Pixies’ great achievements was to harness the power and sonic authority of punk to an extremely controlled, almost mechanized discipline. The way Nick Zinner’s electric guitar explodes in controlled bursts throughout the album, inserting power and force at just the necessary moments but being careful never to overextend its welcome or overwhelm the melody, illustrates a great deal of the difference between the Yeah Yeah Yeahs then and now. There is very little in the way of slashing feedback to be found on Show Your Bones.
“Way Out” is a spry and tight pop track that, again, seems explicitly designed to surprise any listener expecting a retread of the first album’s sound. The pop sensibility here is almost similar to something one would expect from a group like the New Pornographers — and this control can be heard in the way the group slides so effortlessly into the verse-chorus-verse structure, as well as the exquisitely layered guitar sounds (both acoustic and electric, subtly blended together). Why, there are even handclaps at the breakdown!
After “Way Out” there are two tracks, “Fancy” and “Pheonomena”, which, of all the songs on the album, seem most similar to the style and execution of Fever To Tell. However, even given the fact that these tracks are more overtly rocking than the bulk of the album, they seem less punky and more sludgy, as if the group’s garage and grunge influences had been at least partially replaced by a fondness for Black Sabbath. “Fancy” is a slow stomper in the vein of the Queens of the Stone Age, and “Phenomena” sees Zinner doing his best Tom Morello impression in the form of an ominous, one-note guitar refrain that carries through the song with deadly portent. “Honeybear” is a bit more raucous, but its a throwback to a kind of proto-punk sixties sound, like Phil Spector producing the Stooges (albeit with a dub breakdown, ‘natch). It kicks with a light touch, if you can imagine that.
Up to this point, five tracks into the album, Show Your Bones is shaping up to be a nicely diverse and genial collection of tracks, certainly a shift from their first album but by no means a radical departure. About halfway through, however, the group takes a sudden left turn that brings everything into sharp focus. “Cheated Hearts” is the throbbing heart of the album, a stormy ballad that I would perhaps compare to “Maps” if it wasn’t superior to “Maps” in every conceivable way, a startlingly grown-up rebuttal to the latter track’s adolescent heartbreak. “Maps” was the best song on Fever To Tell by a wide margin, and its a testament to just how much the band has developed in the ensuing three years that “Cheated Hearts” is by no means the clear winner on Show Your Bones.
The track begins with twenty-two seconds of a single pulsating guitar note, building tension and yet also implying the presence of something more comprehensively transcendent than had been previously hinted. As soon as the proper movement of the song kicks in, with clear, almost Byrds-ian guitar chords and light-footed, insistent drumming on the part of Brian Chase complimenting Karen O.’s most emphatically clear lyrics yet, the listener perceives the raw emotion lying behind Show Your Bones’ starkly different tone:
Cheated by the opposite of love,
Held on high from up-a-up-above,
Kept my high from the second one,
Kept my eye on the first one,
Now I’ll take these rings and stow them safe away,
I’ll wear them on another rainy day,
Take these rings and stow them safe away,
I’ll wear them on another rainy day.
The rising melody that carries through the song brings to mind an emotional crescendo just emerging over the horizon, a vivid and bright message of perseverance through the most taxing melancholy. It’s simply a beautiful track, a shockingly mature statement of hope in the face of romantic disintegration.
So then, that’s the secret: Show Your Bones isn’t just a sophomore album, with all the baggage and critical expectation that entails, its also a break-up album. It is to the band’s credit that they don’t seem to care one way or another how their music plays to the expectations of their audience. Whatever anyone was expecting from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album, it’s a good bet that it wasn’t well-crafted, melancholy semi-autobiographical pop. Well, tough shit — this is what we’ve got, and it’s better than it has any right to be.
After “Cheated Hearts”, the entire mood of the album shifts to meet this revelation. “Dudley” is another somber yet strangely light-footed piece of romantic recrimination, whereas “Mysteries” is an upbeat, psuedo-rockabilly punk track that almost seems to exult in the pain of a broken relationship:
I don’t even know what it’s like not to go back to you,
I don’t even know who I like less, you or me,
You or me, you or me,
It’s anyone’s, anyone’s guess.
The album’s final third builds on the velocity and accumulated tension of the previous half-hour, entering an appropriately dark climax before ending on a note of shining resignation — not in the sense of hopelessness, but the kind of nuanced resignation that comes after a great ordeal, after the stages of grief have given way to a hard-earned acceptance. “The Sweets” begins as almost a sketch of a song, a naked rim shot building a loping rhythm until it’s joined by Zinner’s acoustic guitar and Karen O.’s sly vocals. But just when you think you have the song pegged, it starts growing and changing, turning in the space of just a few bars from a stripped-down lament into a charging, whirling, whooshing almost Zepplin-esque tirade. This is a different kind of power altogether from anything the group has ever mustered, a focused, wrathful buzzsaw. Karen O. chants “What’s your crime? What’s your crime?” over and over again as the track hammers the listener; she knows the answer, and everyone within earshot is guilty by association.
“Warrior” is a painfully sparse acoustic ballad that almost sounds as if it could have been recorded in a stairwell, building to an electric climax only after Karen O. has given an incredibly naked performance, single-handedly refuting and abjuring her previous image as a reckless lightning rod. “Men may like me,” she sings with palpable regret, “because I’m a warrior, / Stand on my feet, dance the warrior,”
Now the strangers have caught on,
And they’re riding in the backseat,
Now the river’s going to wash all,
Yeah the river it spoke to me,
It told me I’m small,
And I swallowed it down,
If I make it at all,
I’ll make you want me.
These are the words of someone who has lived through their worst impulses and returned to tell the tale, someone who has been judged on the basis of their least flattering traits and been found wanting — a fitting rejoinder for anyone who wished to peg her as little more than the sum of her fiery performances. As rare as this kind of humility may be in the person of a “rock star”, it’s not without precedence. The presence of “Warrior” on the back side of Show Your Bones reminds me strongly of Keith Richards’ fragile vocal turn on “You Got the Silver”, the penultimate track on the Stones’ Let It Bleed. The comparison may seem unwieldy to some, but bear with me: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are nowhere near as musically accomplished as the Stones in ’69, obviously… but there’s a similar sense of emotional nuance here, a shell-shocked, world-weary wisdom that has less to do with the art and craft of songwriting (after all, good songwriters are a dime a dozen these days), than with the kind of real, honest-to-God living that informs the most distinctive artistic voices. There’s absolutely nothing ironic about the emotions on display here, and once you plug into exactly what is being communicated, it’s impossible not to come away drained as a result.
And just as Let It Bleed finishes with the anthemic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, Show Your Bones ends with “Turn Into”, a song that manages to turn the earned resignation into an euphoric statement of survival and strength. The verses hinge on Karen O.’s repeated statement of “I know what I know”; she spins that simple tautological refrain into a confirmation of self-possession in the wake of a spiritually devastating disaster. The music itself is similarly euphoric, cresting on a melodic movement that rises and falls with resonant precision. It’s a rare moment of totally earned musical bliss, the fitting capstone to a harrowing ordeal.
Certainly, with all the hype that surrounded the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ early career, it would have been easy to dismiss them. But those who saw the potential in their earliest releases can take comfort in the fact that the band has not only made good on every shred of potential, with Show Your Bones they’ve exceeded the most optimistic expectations with confident aplomb. For all the wealth on display, Show Your Bones is less than 40 minutes long. This doesn’t sound like any sophomore album I’ve ever heard, this is more like a fifth or sixth album from a band that’s been together twice as long.
It’s almost too good an album to be true. Considering the bulk of the boilerplate hyperbole that passes for criticism these days, there’s a real possibility that it could be overlooked or undervalued simply because it’s become so hard to tell legitimately good from the fashionably cool. And then, of course, the question begs to be asked: if no one can perceive the difference, is there still a difference? I would propose that Show Your Bones is good enough to defy the cultural expectations of the moment. Even if this isn’t what people were perhaps expecting, even if the album fails to receive anywhere near the praise it justly deserves, it’s not going anywhere. Long after the current fashionable thing has faded and been replaced, I’m still going to be listening to Show Your Bones. Beyond the hype and the hyperbole and the backlash, a good album remains a good album, and this is a damn fine album. Recognize.