The Yeah Yeah Yeahs have now logged more than 10 years of style-over-substance accusations, in just about every form. Album one: Was it punky or polished? What did Karen O wear, by when was it drenched in beer, what else got drenched, and who? And is there supposed to be music somewhere in all this froth? (Yes.) Album two: The same thing that happens with every album two. Did the sophomores slump? (Sort of, but you’re also still reading about them seven years later.) Album three: Was it a sell-out? Where’s the rock, and wherefore these synths? (No, present; because they can.) And yet for those same years, the YYYs have delivered substance, damn the style. Not only do the albums hold up, but they suggest an alternate history for the band, one where none of the mythology matters. Airlift Fever to Tell or It’s Bliss or Show Your Bones (maybe bundle that one with the other two) to the hands of the proverbial cave-dweller (hence the airlift), one who doesn’t care about which scenes and which clubs and which legendary nights in which permutations supposedly brought the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to glory, and what they’ll hear is an consistently great pop-rock act, one that could happily make 10 more albums just like the rest.
The band sees things differently. “So maybe we’re not the smartest or the strongest band, but we fucking adapt, man,” Karen O told Spin. “One of the gifts I have is being in tune with knowing I need to change before everyone else does.” This explains the band’s trajectory well enough: debut with venom, pupate while the rest burn out, emerge shiny and poppy at just the right moment, before everyone else did. (Perhaps it helped that “Maps,” their best-known track, was interpolated by Kelly Clarkson’s best-loved single “Since U Been Gone,” which still blows people’s minds.) Darwinism isn’t always bad for buzz bands; buzz, if it survives, evolves into name recognition, which evolves into respectability, which evolves into a legacy. Karen O gets to work on big-name projects like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and clean up for Gen-X nostalgia-fests like Where the Wild Things Are, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs get to keep their near-legendary status, and the victory lap is theirs for the running.
Or else they could change again, before everyone else does. Evolution’s been kind to them, after all. It’s been so kind they decided to evolve again and again, a chain reaction of mutations every which way. Mosquito’s been described as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lo-fi album, as their bid to recapture that old magic, and as their sudden burst of inspiration, demo after dozens of demos written at once. Of these, Mosquito’s closest to the latter; it’s the band’s “WTF, Evolution?” moment. Call it styles over substance, perhaps; Mosquito‘s their first album that’s neither cohesive nor consistent. At 11 tracks the album’s technically concise, but thematically it sprawls so much you wonder what the editing process possibly could have cut.
One possibility: the obvious lead single. There isn’t one. Instead, there is “Sacrilege,” just a total mess of a song, which begins with fucking Lucifer (“Fell down from the sky / Halo round his head / Feathers in our bed”) and ends in a brick-walled gospel choir, complete with handclaps and soloist and completely out of nowhere. It takes up one-third of the song. On paper there’s no way it could possibly work, except maybe as a bid for one of VH1’s Awesomely Bad Song countdowns; but it’s actually fantastic if you just go with it and forget about taste.
It’s weird to talk about forgetting taste with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, considering their entire legacy rests on their taste-making; but it’s the only way to listen to about half of Mosquito. It’s hard to say which is more dated in “Area 52,” the cock-rock or the alien-abduction metaphor (sample lyrics: “I wanna be an alien / Take me please, oh alien”), but most of the acts doing this schtick in the ‘70s were far more ridiculous than the YYYs, whose way of handling it is straightforward and kind of great. “Slave” is also dated, albeit to a gloomier, grungier time when “You keep me, keep me” coos and master/slave talk was almost transgressive and not the stuff of New York Times think pieces with Dan Savage interviews; but the point where you’re about to shake your head is also the point where the hooks sink in. The outro, with its “Come feed on my love” refrain, is almost reminiscent of Margaret Berger’s gloom-pop track “I Feed You My Love” — but if the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs now evoke Eurovision entries, at least they’re evoking the excellent ones. “Under the Earth” is like a Cardigans song with sopranos; “These Paths” is like Purity Ring if they were acoustic and sinuous. “Buried Alive” has a non-sequitur guest verse by Kool Keith’s demented alter-ego Doctor Octagon, last seen and retired years ago, because why the hell not? Just go with it.
“Mosquito isn’t ever going to be a classic, but if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs follow the right leads from it, it could well be a classic transition album.”
With so much going on, obviously we’re dealing with variable quality here. Less charitable listeners will probably list at least one of the above tracks as a low; I’ll instead submit “Mosquito,” as in, a thing that crawls between your legs and sucks your blood. It’s goofy and raucous but also like the exaggerated parody (complete, apparently, with exaggerated lust-stung fan) you’d write if you wanted to be mean. “Always,” meanwhile, is a bloated interlude, the sort of formless love slog that’d prompt said meanie to pen a screed about Karen O’s marriage ruining the band — as if the rest of the (men in the) band had no say, and as if the album didn’t contain another, perfectly fine actual wedding song. Called “Wedding Song.”
It’s weird, again, for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to be best in serious mode, but here we are. “Subway” is spare and haunting, sung in a wilting soprano (if the PJ Harvey comparisons still apply, this is White Chalk) with nothing but quiet guitar, synth pads and the trundling wheels of New York’s JMZ line for percussion; it drifts slow to a vacant stop like its empty namesake at 4 a.m. (Counterpoint: by 2014, at least one person, probably in Brooklyn, will have written “I lost you on the subway car / Got caught without my MetroCard” in a Missed Connection.) “Despair” is like a girl-group ballad burnt with a blowtorch, the “Be My Baby” fill left holey and crispy and half the vocal lines in ashes. Neither of these styles, of course, are exactly what anyone wanted from the YYYs, but somehow they work. Sometimes those weird mutations actually turn out useful. Mosquito isn’t ever going to be a classic, but if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs follow the right leads from it, it could well be a classic transition album. If you doubt that, remember how many doubters the YYYs have proven wrong.
Mosquito is out today via Interscope. Stream the album below: