In Brief: Much like an actual mosquito, this album sucks, it’s annoying, and I want to slap it.
It seems impossible to discuss the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, Mosquito, without first addressing the issue of its cover art. I think I may be one of the few people who wasn’t horrified by it. Sure, it’s garish. It’s a cartoonish image of a sickly, purple baby being snagged (and presumably stung) by a menacing, man-sized mosquito. It’s over-the-top ridiculous. But if you know anything about the band’s image, it’s humorously fitting. I can understand people finding it ugly, but I was surprised to hear that the band got so much backlash for it. Come on folks, this isn’t a Cannibal Corpse album cover or anything. Sometimes album covers are purposefully goofy. Let’s take a moment to acknowledge that it’s coming from a band who doesn’t seem terribly concerned with being taken super-seriously, and then let’s move on and talk about the actual collection of songs that they saw fit to sum up with such a bizarre image. As it turns out, the contents of this album remind me of a mosquito in several ways:
Let’s just get the harshest criticism out of the way first thing. I don’t mean “it sucks” as a 100% dismissal of everything on the record – I am giving it a reasonably generous 3-star rating rather than a thorough 1-star tongue-lashing, after all. What I mean here is that it frequently sucks the enjoyment out of listening to the music. The band’s previous album, It’s Blitz!, may have done this for some fans of their old garage-rock style by relying so much on drum loops and other forms of electronic trickery, but that was a solidly produced album, great fun even when it was really goofy. Something about the production here, though it makes more attempts to merge smooth electronic sounds with rougher “organic” ones, just feels limp and lifeless. So even a lot of the upbeat songs, on which Karen O is rambling about something off-the-wall or not-so-subtly sensual, just aren’t as enjoyable as they feel like they should be because most of the layers of sound feel mushed together into an instinct buzz. Songs that should be this album’s answer to the dance-rock genius of “Zero” or the monolithic eulogy “Skeletons” pale in comparison, because the band is so caught up in repeating the same old groove that they forget to let most of these songs grow and change as they drone on and on.
Mediocre production values can often be overcome if I feel like a band has great charisma and something worth singing about. I know the YYY’s well enough to not assume I should expect anything profound from them. But I should at least get caught up enough in the mood and rhythm of a song that I want to participate in the party they’re throwing. I should be captivated by the voice of a singer who I do think is a talented and charismatic frontwoman. Instead, many songs are punctuated by these shrill yelps that emphasize the absolute worst characteristics of Karen’s voice, while a great riff or rhythmic set-up that gets a song going just becomes trite and boring by the end of it. It’s as if pure attitude and swagger have become a brand that the band knows they can sell. Sometimes, they can pull off a great song with nothing but that, but due to their usual minimal approach in the lyrics department, it becomes blatantly obvious when a song doesn’t have all that much to say. So if I’m not on board with the general ambiance of a song right away, there’s very little chance of it doing anything to excite me by the time it’s over.
I WANT TO SLAP IT.
Really, I do. Percussive maintenance seems to work for skipping records and snow-bound TV sets from before the days of digital media, but nowadays I’m left with nothing to hit if I don’t like the sound coming out of my mp3 player. A record isn’t truly “broken” if it’s just the singer repeating the same uninspired phrases over and over. It’s just a bad record. And throughout Mosquito, you get these great setups that, almost invariably, fall into the trap of repeating themselves without ever getting to the punchline or the plot twist or the profound revelation that makes them worthwhile. It’s like dressing up in a really cool costume, but then not having a character to go with the costume, and deciding instead just to badger people until they acknowledge how cool your costume is. It wouldn’t be a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record if the overall style and mood of each song didn’t just ooze coolness. There’s no question that they’re good at taking that first step and not second-guessing it. But the overall “reason for being” seems to be lacking in most of these songs – they’re flimsily constructed around seeds of interesting ideas that never got the chance to grow. The few songs that prove me wrong on this point do turn out to be enough to tip the overall balance to average rather than flat-out bad, but still. For the majority of my time spent listening to this album, I want to slap whoever decided to accept these songs as is, instead of sending them back for another round of quality control.
The album certainly leads off with a song that the band wants us to have as much fun with as “Zero”. Despite it being loaded with religious imagery, and playing off of the idea that a romantic relationship with a guy Karen views as some sort of a fallen angel is considered taboo by… I don’t know, somebody… it’s light-hearted enough that the question of whether this is intended to make a statement about conservative religious views never even comes up. The point is that the seemingly forbidden nature of the relationship makes it hotter. You get a few metaphors here – “Halo round his head, feathers in our bed”, that sort of thing – and a whole lot of Karen pleading and praying along with a Gospel choir later in the track (neat effect, though it’s been done a bazillion times before). But there’s nothing specific enough to really indicate what makes the relationship forbidden or what forces she’s pleading and praying against. Musically, the group works themselves up into a nice little simmering rhythm, heavy on the cymbals, with lots of little chimey guitar riffs floating about – a decent blend of earthy and heavenly sounds. But the biggest drawback here is Karen’s vocals. She deliberately contrasts her sweet side with these loud, piercing shrieks, which probably wouldn’t sound terrible unedited, but they’re deliberately distorted by the production to sound like they’re coming through a bullhorn or something. It’s an effect that just makes me want to duck and cover – I don’t find it to be sexy, or sassy, or even amusing in its obnoxiousness. And it really hurts a song that, otherwise, is just a bit of harmless fun.
Many jokes have already been made about how this slow, sensual sound collage brings the album to a screeching halt, so I’ll spare you. At its core is a clever idea, one that pays tribute to the band’s hometown by using the sound of a New York City subway car as its rhythm track. The clickety-clack effect lends itself well to the gentle rocking of a train as two of its occupants get… well, rather up close and personal. Karen deliberately plays up the cooing, sensual aspects of her voice as she slowly sighs about spotting Mr. Right from a distance on a subway car, and then losing him in the crowd. It’s a nice setup – beautifully augmented by the restrained guitar and bass melodies that seep through it – but there’s virtually no payoff, just an awful pun that she lingers on for far too long as the song inexorably winds down: “I got off, got off on you.” I’m not knocking the band for trying something different or for taking a minimalistic approach – I just think it was a terrible idea to put this one so far up in the track listing, and to not flesh out the lyrics a bit more. The band has joked that they expect folks to “make babies” to this one, but it’s probably more appropriate for putting the babies you already have to sleep.
The title track, which clearly intends to be the flagship song an album designed to present a bold new image for the band, is a profoundly uninspired embarrassment of a song. It didn’t need to be this way – there’s tons of potential in the bouncy bass line and the sharp, angular guitar licks that hearken back to the band’s early days. Just a slice of brainless guitar rock goodness – where’s the harm in that, right? This stuff isn’t intended to be super-cerebral. And I’d be fine with that, if Karen’s ode to the world’s most irritating insect had something comedic to say, or at least something that established a quirky enough personality to overcome the sheer stupidity of it. But lyrically, there’s pretty much nothing there. The verse leaves me feeling like I’m reading a Dick and Jane book with its super-basic phrasing: “Mosquito sing. Mosquito cry. Mosquito live. Mosquito die.” And of course her conclusion, screamed ad nauseum in the chorus (and “ad nauseum” shouldn’t be possible in only a three-minute song!), is this: “They’ll suck your blood!” Strong emphasis on the word “Suck”, of course. She clearly likes the way it feels to enunciate that word, but the song doesn’t even have the gumption to let you know it’s being suggestive on purpose. And if that wasn’t painful enough, Karen has to make these buzzing sounds, imitating the insect she’s singing about, and it’s not funny or cool or even baffling in a way that could be remotely considered charming. I’m sorry, Karen, but I heard enough of you making animal noises on that awful song you did with The Flaming Lips a few years ago. I don’t need a reprise.
4. Under the Earth
This might as well be the template song for the entire album. It’s got a slower, slinkier bass groove than most of the other songs here, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it’s a harbinger of things to come, due to how it establishes its groove and then just sort of leaves it at that. I find so little memorable about this one, other than that it’s pleasant in passing. Programmed beats pop in and out, various echo effects chime in here and there, and Karen establishes a bit of a creepy vibe as she sings about lovers being buried underground and twelve tongues putting a hex on you, whatever that’s all about. They might have something here if they played up the creepy angle, but their refusal to develop the song much beyond its starting point basically renders it inert.
Part of the fun of a song like “Zero” was that, even if the dominatrix-y undercurrent of the lyrics could be mildly off-putting, the song worked itself into enough of a frenzy that you could imagine the person she was singing it to enjoying the abuse. They go for that same vibe here, with what’s probably their best riff and their best melody thus far on the album. They’ve just turned the imbalanced relationship on its head, as Karen croons about being kept as someone else’s love slave. Here, it’s the band’s usual aversion to specifics that actually works in the songs favor, giving it a slightly menacing mood without getting detailed enough to make it feel icky. Something feels a bit off in the production department here, weighing down a song that should be an unmitigated triumph due to the dampened sound of both Nick Zinner‘s guitar and Brian Chase‘s drums. It still gets going at a pretty good clip if you give it a minute or so, but I’m willing to bet it probably comes across better live. Still, it’s a highlight on an album that has a noticeable dearth of them.
6. These Paths
The band gets really synth happy on this one. It’s actually kind of a cool effect at first, because there’s this very jumpy, outer-spacey kind of melody that seems to be scribbling all over the place. For a minute or so, I’m distracted from my usual complaints about how this record doesn’t emphasize the band over the production enough, and I’m willing to follow them down their computerized rabbit hole. Then I start to realize how utterly wasted these hyperactive sounds are on a wonky set of lyrics, which once again favor repetition over explanation as they insist two people’s paths will one day cross. Karen seems more concerned with modifying words slightly, making you wonder if you heard her singing the right consonants, as she morphs a phrase like “These paths will cross again” to sound more like “These pants rub off against”. (It’s even worse when she decides to rhyme “sit” with “sh!t” not much later on. Context doesn’t make it sound any better in this case, folks.) Her vocals reach a somewhat compelling level of fervor by the end of it, so it’s not all wasted effort, but since I’m not tracking with whatever she’s hollering about, I can only enjoy this track on a very superficial level.
7. Area 52
This one might as well be the sister song to “Mosquito”. It’s slightly less annoying, only because it’s not quite as audacious. Once again, I think the group’s going for intentionally mindless fun, and if you’re aiming to not be taken seriously, singing about an alien invasion is generally a good way to get your point across. But it’s saying something when a band manages to write a more inane lyric on such a subject than even The Killers or Katy Perry would. (Hmmm, Katy Perry’s a tough call… it depends on whether Kanye West is there to throw in a little extra douchebaggery.) A fun, stop-start guitar riff that lights up like you’ve just won an extra life in a video game (and which is, of course, repeated a whole bunch as if the entire song’s life depends on it) isn’t enough to save it. It’s just dumb, and not in a fun way. The fact that Karen sings this one like a constipated Gwen Stefani doesn’t help.
8. Buried Alive
So hey, Yeah Yeah Yeahs haven’t done one of those genre-busting crossover songs where a wild rapper appears in the middle of it yet, have they? Say no more. It’s time for Dr. Octagon to show up and rock your world! Except, not so much. I can’t fault the man for the mildly entertaining rap verse that makes up the gooey candy center of this vaguely funky, mid-tempo song that might otherwise come across as an unmemorable cousin to “Under the Earth”. (Shoot, even the two titles are similar.) I mean, the dude probably provides half the lyrical content of the entire album just in that brief little cameo. Even though it’s just another one of those braggy verses about how the rapper in question is going to lay waste to you and put you six feet under (and being what it is, it’s reasonably clever in its phrasing), it certainly beats the total punt of a lyric provided by Karen O and the gang, which – no exaggeration – consists of two lines repeated for most of the song: “I dreamt I was buried alive” and “Free yourself, that leash is long, long, long”. The end result? Utter meaninglessness, on a track that only momentarily distracts from its lack of content with its over-driven guitars and other splashy colors. I suppose it could be worse.
Here we are, folks. We’ve arrived at “worse”. This one’s near the bottom of the barrel as far as I’m concerned – a song with sweet, romantic intentions that utterly fails to captivate. I’m not sure what’s worse here – the complete lack of charm emanating from the programmed beat that just screams “cheap Casio imitation of a bossa nova”, or the lyrics which manage to be more confoundingly repetitive than anything else on the album. If Karen whining the word “Always” twelve times in a row during the chorus doesn’t get you, her total lack of anything interesting to say in the three-line verse that repeats in lieu of a second verse probably will. Here, I’ll quote the entire thing: “Forget ’bout time, forever mine/Impossibility is possible to me/To me and you, we’ll see it through.” This isn’t cute. This is garbage.
As soon as this one starts, with its one-note guitar riff and its lazy programmed rhythm stuttering like a skipping CD, I’m already steeling myself for another barrage of inane crap. Imagine my surprise, then, when this turns out to be the one song on the album where the band truly gets to shine. The sensitive side of the band that they failed so miserably to demonstrate on the previous track finally gets to shine here, and without sacrificing the band’s ability to build a song up to a satisfying climax. Despite the title, the song actually serves as an antidote to feelings of desperation – it’s simple and yes, a bit repetitive, but Karen is totally believable as she urges her lover that she’ll be there through his darkest hours just as he was there through hers. It takes some solid musicianship to get away with a lyric that dares to rhyme “wasted years” with “tears” and “fears” – this one wouldn’t win any awards for songwriting alone. But it’s truly a showcase for the band’s ability to lock into a groove and have a great time with it, Karen’s vocal reaching a fever pitch just as Nick’s guitars do, while Brian’s drums come tumbling down in torrents. For once, there’s a repetitive refrain that actually seems to build momentum with each pass – as Karen signs “My sun is your sun” again and again, it’s like she’s commanding that sun to come up and light the landscape by sheer force of will. It’s like an edgier take on the previous album’s “Hysteric”, and just I grew to love “Hysteric”, I’ve become incredibly fond of this one. It would probably still be one of the weaker tracks on It’s Blitz!, but here, it’s absolutely sublime.
11. Wedding Song
There were a few slower songs on It’s Blitz! that seemed startlingly out of character at first, and chief among them was the closing track, “Little Shadow”. That one eventually grew on me for sentimental reasons which were probably incidental to the band’s reason for writing the song. Either way, it had a very slow vibe to it that didn’t seem to match even any of the lighter material that followed it. I feel the same way about this one – mushy sentimentality wins out over an interesting performance, and it’s asking a lot of the listener when they’ve spent most of the album on pure camp only to suddenly get all sincere and lovey-dovey on us in these last three tracks. I have no doubt that this one has deep personal significance to Karen O, given that she wrote it for her wedding last year, but it’s got this tedious, trapped-in-amber sort of pace to it that makes it a bit tough for me to get into. I can sort of appreciate the background ambiance – which sounds like the chirping of seagulls or something, and which brings in a pulsating bass rhythm that remains steady throughout the song. I don’t notice much else except for piano chords striking evenly at the beginning of each measure and the guitar melodically chiming on each quarter note, though, so there’s not much room for surprises or even a little syncopation here. Lyrically, the song’s devotion is admirable – it’s the rare poetic entry on an album that generally isn’t concerned with being poetic. “In flames I sleep soundly/With angels around me/I lay at your feet/You’re the breath that I breathe.” The drums and guitar seem to be building up to something a little more climactic as the song draws to a close, but it never quite gets there, so the album closes on a rather conventional and underwhelming note.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Under the Earth $.50
These Paths $.75
Area 52 $.25
Buried Alive $.75
Wedding Song $.50
Karen O: Lead vocals, keyboards, piano
Nick Zinner: Guitars, keyboards
Brian Chase: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.