Brian Chase, Karen O, and Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Photo by David Black.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have had a wild career trajectory, not only broadening their sound but also starting out strong yet somehow improving by leaps and bounds with each new release. Their early EPs marked them as the artsiest, most abrasive band of the early 2000s garage rock revival, their 2003 debut LP Fever to Tell still featured that abrasiveness (the “Choke, choke, choke!” yelps of “Date with the Night”) but also held room for songs like the lovelorn classic “Maps.” Sophomore album Show Your Bones followed three years later shorn of any garage rock trappings and instead offering muscular, arena-ready, guitar-driven indie rock like the stomping “Phenomena.” Then three years later, It’s Blitz! brought the band to the dancefloor with bangers like “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”—as good as Show Your Bones was, It’s Blitz! was somehow even stronger, even catchier, even more adventurous. But then came 2013’s Mosquito, an album whose adventurousness moved even further afield into lo-fi electronic atmospherics, conjuring a few notable tunes (the groovy album opener “Sacrilege,” the tender album closer “Wedding Song”) but mostly feeling ephemeral, the songs evaporating from memory as soon as they were done playing.
If you’re a longtime fan of the band, and if you agree with everything I said in the last paragraph, I have something to say that may worry you, but stay with me here: Cool It Down, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first album in nine years, plays in a lot of ways like a direct successor to Mosquito. The songs are light and airy and sparse and lean heavily on programmed beats and keyboards. Yet the results are so, so much better. This is the rare sequel that blows the original out of the water.
The similarities and differences are on full display in opener (and lead single) “Spitting Off the Edge of the World.” The song still leans into electronic elements like drum machines and synthesizers, but instead of ephemeral it’s downright epic because of its constant energy shifts. The verses are delivered in a quavering whisper by Karen O (and, in a nice touch, guest singer Mike Hadreas, a.k.a. Perfume Genius) that gets quieter and quieter until O, in that inimitable reverb-soaked voice, belts out the song’s title at full volume followed quickly by Brian Chase’s drums thundering to life while Nick Zinner offers up the fattest keyboard chords this side of M83.
Synthesizers are an out-sized presence throughout Cool It Down. “Wolf” is centered around watery electronic bleats—paired with Chase’s driving beat and O’s vibrating soprano, the song gives strong “Running Up That Hill” vibes—that builds to a crescendo thanks to some synthesized orchestral strings. “Fleez” teams a funky bassline with keyboards (some played by former Beastie Boys DJ “Money” Mark Nishita) that are alternately Tom Tom Club chirpy, cool and icy, or minor key haunting. “Different Today” pairs emotionally unsteady lyrics with a skittering beat and synths that downright shimmer—it plays like “Everybody Hurts” rewritten for the dancefloor.
Yet it’s not all artificial. “Burning” builds off a piano melody borrowed from the Four Seasons’ “Beggin’,” of all places, plus a swinging drumbeat and darkly distorted guitars. Zinner’s guitars here are a master’s class in economy, mostly single ringing chords until the last thirty seconds where he shifts to pairs of chords. It’s not complicated, it’s not showy, but is it effective at evoking a dark mood to pair with “all that burning” that Karen O is singing about so damn forcefully? Hell yeah.
Karen O can belt it out better than damn near anybody in the indie rock game, and the way she records her voice with a very specific and recognizable reverb applied is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ calling card, the only thing, really, that ties this album sonically to their pre-Mosquito era. And yet frequently the band bristles against even that signature sound throughout Cool It Down. Both “Lovebomb” and “Blacktop” find O laconically mumbling, delicately cooing, blues-ily crooning, even just sultrily speaking, but never releasing her full-force wail. Album closer “Mars” is also spoken, not sung, and what a beautiful song it is, just a music box melody warped to sound alien and uneasy, a bass drum thumping in the distance, and Karen O talking simply, sweetly, and poetically about a conversation with her son, the lyrics abstract yet so pregnant with meaning. It’s over in under two minutes and seems unlikely to get a crowd moving at a concert, but it’s so powerful and poignant and pretty, a perfect album closer.
One very wise choice the band made with Cool It Down was keeping it lean: just eight songs, with a run time just barely cracking a half hour. There’s a rich variety of sonic textures in those eight songs, yet all the moods fit together in one satisfying piece. Nine years was a long time to wait after the disappointing Mosquito, but the wait was most definitely worth it for an album that easily sits aside their very best while spending its entire run time exploring fertile new ground. | Jason Green