By Bec Wolfers
It’s been worth the wait: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have just dropped their latest LP, ‘Mosquito’, after three years of chilltime. Here’s a hint of the experimentation present on this album – Karen O has described ‘Mosquito’ as a “Yeah Yeah Yeahs-style soul record”. Although, on first listen, this might seem like a strange description, I definitely see what she means. The YYY are back in fine form, and here’s what I thought of ‘Mosquito’s eleven tracks.
I’m so excited about this song. It’s been in my head for days. Brimming with hooks AND substance, ‘Sacrelige’ is a real corker. The playful high guitar melody oscillates around the delicious falsetto chorus: ‘it’s sacrelige, sacrelige, sacrelige, you say’. Karen O’s signature distorted vocal effect is used on some of her best melodies to date here. What can I say, every vocal moment in this is a winner, from the high squawks of ‘hello’ and ‘in our bed’, to the verse melodies, the unforgettable chorus, and the insane gospel choir, complete with clapping. (The choir! What an inspired choice for a song with religious lyrical hintings). This song weirdly reminds me of Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’; it’s probably the lyrics, choir and claps that do that. ‘Sacrelige’ has grooved its way into my heart, and will remain nestled there as one of my favourite Yeah Yeah Yeahs tracks ever.
I adore this song! Having used actual sounds from the subway as a loop, this song is, as Karen O put it, an ode to New York. I love the creativity of actually using an iconic part of the city in a song about it. The lyrics are reflective, and as intimate as the restrained vocals. ‘It was metal on the mental/It was somethin’ in my heart/Got on the train and I took a seat/Thought why all these people all watching me?/Caught my reflection in the subway car/Thought look at you, whoever you are’. Hands up, if you have ever had these exact feelings riding a train car. There’s something about traveling alone on public transport that can really inspire self-reflection – maybe it’s because you’re surrounded by strangers, yet utterly alone. The song also hints at chasing a doomed love, which is about one of the loneliest things you can feel; ‘I lost you on the subway car/Got caught without my metro card/I waited and I waited for the express train/Wanna catch up to you , wherever you are/I waited and I waited…’. Sparse, ethereal and haunting synth & guitar melodies transport you right to that subway seat. This is a gem, one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ finest.
I heard this for the first time during the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ set at Big Day Out this year. Of course, the outdoor festival sound wrecked it a little. I very much enjoyed this on record. It’s a really fun, punky song, with playful lyrics. The ‘I’ll suck your blood/suck your, suck your, suck your blood’ hook was a standout for me at Big Day Out, and remains this way on the recording. What a cool metaphor for a draining person; one who has a hold on you but ends up vampirically stealing your energy: ‘They can see but it can’t see them/They’re hiding underneath your bed/Crawling between your legs/Sticking it in your vein’. Similar in sound to the dance anthems on ‘It’s Blitz!’, this song is really well constructed dynamically, and makes me want to jump around exuberantly every time the chorus hits.
Under the Earth
‘Under the Earth’ sounded instantly familiar during my ‘Mosquito’ album listen, and I realized I’d actually heard it played at Big Day Out as well. Thanks for the album preview, Yeah Yeah Yeahs! The song’s main synth melody is a great reminder of how good this band is at crafting hooks. Every time the melody comes back in, it feels really well placed; you’re itching to hear it again. There’s a really lovely choir effect throughout the whole song…not a gospel choir like in ‘Sacrelige’, but it makes me see what Karen means about this being a ‘soul’ record. With reggae beats, a sireny synth, and tons of delay in the verses, this song is very experimental sonically. I dig it a lot. Karen’s signature vocal hooks sound reminiscent of old YYY songs, particularly the ‘Show Your Bones’ era. I love how the high synth follows the vocal melody of ‘down, down, under the earth goes another…’, and the falsetto ‘run away, run away‘ lyrics.
‘Slave’ is a great example of effective sound design. The song has a cool swing, and so many sounds in it can be summed up with the word ‘sweeping’. The phasy guitar effects are sweepy, the haunting vocal ‘aaaaah’s swirl epically, and noises that can only be described as ‘electronic birds’ flutter around your head (especially with headphones on). I love the melody of ‘You keep me, keep me your slave’. This song makes me feel haunted in the best way, and its spacious ending leaves me breathless.
‘Drum and bass’, ‘lounge’ and ‘trance’ are genres I never thought I would associate with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But ‘These Paths’ is choc-full of those vibes. There is almost no hint of a traditional guitar-bass-drums band sound here. Everything has been shelved for its electro counterpart – synthy bass, tinkly keys instead of guitar, and what sounds like a manufactured loop, rather than live drums. That being said, I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing; I enjoyed this song a lot. There is a great deal of passion in the vocals and lyrics. ‘These paths will cross/Again, again/These pants come off/Against, against…’
There are so many things going on in this album! This song is exuberant and full of manic energy. With a punky start, crazy, electro sweeps, and feedback galore, ‘Area 52’ is a great soundscape for a song with lyrics like ‘I wanna be an alien/Take me please, oh alien’. Karen’s distinctive ‘Noo Yawk’ accent is out in full force in this song, and the vocal distortion adds to the out-of-this-world industrialism of this track.
This song is a very interesting one. The cool, prowling bassline’s depths, and the vocal delays, actually reminded me of being under ground before I noticed what the song was called ‘Buried Alive’! It makes me wonder how the song was crafted, perhaps Karen wrote the lyrics after the music was already together. The vocals in this song make me fall in love with Karen O even more. Her speak-singing of “I dreamt, dreamt, dreamt, dreamt, dreamt, dreamt…” is a delight. It’s not the first time she’s done vocals in this vein, but it’s something that is unique to her and the YYY.
I must say, I was incredibly surprised to hear Dr. Octagon rapping on this track…I confess, I didn’t even know who he was before hearing this song, so seeing the ‘feat. Dr Octagon’ didn’t ring a bell until I heard it. I didn’t know anything about his history and persona, so this review is purely about the rap in the context of this song, and how it came across to me on first listen. To be honest, the rap didn’t do a lot for me. It reminded me of 90s dance music (which I shamefully love, but mostly for its kitsch and nostalgic value). Dr Octagon’s rap seemed as dated, cheesy and devoid of substance as the 90s dance it reminded me of (Sorry, Dr. Oct).
Also; I’ll just repeat that, in case it didn’t adequately sink in. THERE IS RAPPING ON A YEAH YEAH YEAHS SONG. You must hear this.
With further research, I’ve found that Dr. Octagon is a character invented by New York rapper ‘Kool Keith’ Thornton, and is supposed to be an ‘extraterrestrial time traveling gynecologist and surgeon from the planet Jupiter‘. Dr. Octagon has a fascinating and detailed backstory. It makes sense that the YYY would use him; they’ve always been into art and experimentation, so kudos to them for trying new things. The description of Keith’s creation makes me like him more…but I’m still not sold on his rap. I really don’t want to be among the (probably numerous) jerks who will be dismissive of the rap, just because it’s there, and unexpected. But I just didn’t dig it; it seemed so weird to hear Karen O and then a rapper.
‘Always’ is sometimes heart wrenching, but with a hopeful tone. The song strikes me as a frozen moment in time, as it’s both musically and lyrically quite repetitive. However, the constant subtle changes and growth keep it from becoming annoying. It’s a very soft song, probably one of the softest YYY have ever done. Canned Afrikaans drums and tinkling, glockenspiel-esque synths and pads dance around the reverby vocals. Karen O’s melodies are, on first listen, original and unexpected. I can picture myself floating down a tepid stream to this dreamy, delicious offering.
‘Despair’ begins with an unrelenting drum sample that wouldn’t be out of place on a Nine Inch Nails album, another mark of the experimentation the YYY have played with this time around. I’m a sucker for truth-filled lines like, ‘If it’s all in my head there’s nothing to fear’. This song is essentially a letter to the emotion of despair (which I think is a great idea) – ‘you were there through my wasted days’. Despair and fear are wastes of time, we have to learn there’s ‘nothing to fear inside’. This song is a slow burner, gradually building momentum. When the dramatic toms come in, I swoon, as the song grows towards a glorious payoff.
I love when bands finish an album on a quiet, introspective song. With the bass drum and dark, minimal piano pulsing like heartbeats, this song has a lot of space. Karen’s voice is coated in light reverb, with none of distortion featuring heavily on many YYY songs. Her crystal clear, emotive vocals shine in this track, describing the burning ache of love with poignant grace. The lyrics are some of the strongest on the album…my favourite lines are:
With your name on my lips
The ages fall to bits /
In flames I sleep soundly
With angels around me/
Some kind of violent bliss
Led me to love like this
One thousand deaths my dear
I’m dying without you here
So What Did I Think?
As you may have gathered, I’m pretty enthusiastic about this record. It’s different from all other Yeah Yeah Yeahs albums preceding it, but that’s to be expected from this experimental band. I love a group that continues to evolve, push the envelope, explore a thousand different genres, and play with sound. The great thing about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is that they don’t do this gratuitously, or in a way that is difficult for fans to access. They have a great way of managing to experiment without sacrificing damn good songs and songwriting.
There’s genuinely something for everyone in this collection of fast, slow, exuberant and introspective songs. The album has a great pace, delivering ups and downs with perfect intuition and timing.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ amazing spirit continues to grow. ‘Mosquito’ is an ecstatic journey; I suggest you take it now!