Things move fast in the world of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. When they first arrived in Britain a year ago, it seemed likely they’d make a debut album fixated on the simple art of fucking. Instead, ‘Fever To Tell’ is more complicated: seeking to explain love, sex and the remarkable, brittle, sometimes disturbing connections between the two. In 37 minutes.
Love and sex are hardly radical new territory for rock’n’roll. But it’s the candour and energy which Karen O brings to them which is so compelling. When she’s excited, she loses control of language and resorts to a kind of ecstatic yelping. When she wants to explain the power of her emotions, cliches are no hindrance to honesty. The last words on ‘Fever To Tell’ are “And cool kids, they belong together.”
Here, unusually, is a New York art-rock band with a dazzling lack of artifice. Karen O’s attachment to the truth is both striking and touching. She isn’t always entirely trustworthy – ‘Cold Night’, in which she sings, “Yeah we could do it to each other/ Well like a sister and a brother,” has enough of a quasi-incestuous plot to make The White Stripes blush.
But for the most part, it’s her bluntness which dominates. “Baby I’m afraid of a lot of things/ But I ain’t afraid of loving you,” she mumbles, as if buried beneath a duvet, on the hidden track, ‘Porcelain’. “They don’t love you like I love you,” she repeatedly asserts on ‘Maps’, an anthem to bring out the romantic in even the most self-conscious sleaze-monkey. The presence of Angus Andrew, beloved of Karen O and Liars frontman, hovers behind everything on ‘Fever To Tell’. Rarely has so much lust and affection been so explicitly directed towards one skinny artpunk frame.
Of course, these grand gestures of desire would only be of passing interest if ‘Fever To Tell’ was a lame album. Fears about how the Yeah Yeah Yeahs‘ songs might survive the transition from brash and rapacious live show to CD prove groundless. But the decision to include no songs from their first EP has always looked at best cavalier, at worst borderline lunatic.
‘Fever To Tell’ would be fractionally better with the addition of ‘Bang’ and ‘Our Time’. But the good news is that, as debut albums go, it’s terrific. Half the album passes in a breathtaking spurt before you can even try to grasp it. From the high-frequency opening riff of ‘Rich’ to the fuzzy hump of ‘Cold Light’, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase track Karen O’s moods with often freakish empathy. It’s a stark, uncluttered album, with plenty of room for those pinballing guitar lines and weird rhythm clusters. As the formidable opening salvo passes, ‘Fever To Tell’ becomes more reflective and nervous. Karen grapples with the joys and hazards of proper love, and the band respond with unusual sensitivity. ‘Modern Romance’ and ‘Maps’ are far from blousy ballads – there are still too many clangs and edges. Nevertheless, they’re reassuring proof of a musical depth to match Karen’s expanding emotional range.
Not exactly the fuck-and-run job they initially promised, then. ‘Fever To Tell’ reveals the Yeah Yeah Yeahs mixing up the cheap thrills with a grander plan: to build something substantial and special that’ll last long after hormonal new wave has drifted out of fashion again. Let’s hope it works out beautifully for all of us.