The New Yorkers' fourth is a confusing, intriguing ride
They’ve always been a mischievous bunch of minxes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs. For all the stormy weather Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase have endured over the years, when it comes to putting a song down they never take themselves too seriously. So it’s hard not to wonder if Karen was somehow deliberately trying to wrong-foot the world with the way she’s talked up their fourth album. “We would love for this music to make our fans feeeeel something, for it to stir some shit up inside of them, whatever that may be,” she’s said. “So much feeling went into this record, it was the rope ladder thrown down into the ditch for us to climb up and dust ourselves off. I hope others can climb up it too; we’re excited to share the good vibes.”
Chat like that, plus the neon punk up-yours of that sleeve and the fact that they’d got back to basics in a New York basement, might have led us to expect an album full of ‘Date With The Night”s, of spitting, yowling, lusty rampancy. In truth, though, ‘Mosquito’ often feels like Karen’s rope is closer to dangling in the ditch than scaling up to those good vibes. Like its predecessor, ‘It’s Blitz!’, it’s a disparate, moodswingy thing, its highs very far from the lows. It starts as disorientatingly as it means to go on, with the soul-punk of ‘Sacrilege’, a bizarre album opener with its early-climax gospel choir leading into ‘Subway’, a desolate, small-hours snapshot of the city that was Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ cradle. It sounds like the lonely lament of the ghost of a murder victim condemned to haunt the ticket halls and corridors of a lonely Williamsburg subway station, Karen’s voice soft and spooky as a child’s music box over the lonely sound of wheels shunting along tracks and Nick’s nursery-rhyme guitar line.
Much of the album feels emotionally lost and subdued, and to be fair Karen previously warned that it featured some of their “moodiest, most tripped-out” songs. The central section of tracks is tuned down dark and low. ‘Under The Earth’ is as claustrophobic as its title suggests, with guitar that thrums with evil and drums heavy as doom. “Down down under the earth, goes another lover” croons Karen. “Milk you for what it’s worth.” The feeling is of a relationship beginning to turn sour and sick, ties that are still strong but becoming twisted. ‘Slave’ is just as unsettling, Karen wrestling with an emotional bondage as Zinner’s guitar scratches and twists around her before breaking out into fiery ire. ‘These Paths’ maintains the downbeat tone, a trip-hoppy thing that is the strongest example of the dubby reggae influence Karen has spoke of, and though it’s somewhat longer than is good for it, its anxiety is infectious. ‘Buried Alive’, too, which with production from James Murphy and a guest rap from Dr Octagon you might expect to be the party moment on the album, is sullen, with an obsessively circling chorus.
Yet there are bright moments, those good vibes glinting through. ‘Area 52”s bratty punk tale of alien abduction is adorably daft, and the early-Talking Heads-ish (the album is full of nods to New York heritage) bratty thrills of the title track exhilarating. The closing trio of the album, meanwhile, if lighter in tone than the dark heart of ‘Mosquito’, is also sadder, moving from the twinklingly pretty and slight ‘Always’ (“You’re there through my wasted days/You’re there through my wasted nights/You’re there through my wasted life“) to the more chest-thumping yearning of ‘Despair’, to heartbreak; you’re certainly feeling something by the time ‘Wedding Song’ is done with you.
A confusing, intriguing record, then. Not their strongest, but there’s a transition underway. Ten years on from their debut, and with the band all well into their thirties, they can’t just be feral party punks any more. ‘Mosquito’ tries to find a path forward for a more ‘mature’ Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It doesn’t get all the way there, but it will get into your blood all the same.