Album Review: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “Mosquito”
by Samuel Tolzmann on April 12, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Music, Rock
Artist: Yeah Yeah Yeahs
RIYL: Black Lips, Blonde Redhead, PJ Harvey, The Strokes, TV On The Radio
Key tracks: “Slave,” “Wedding Song,” “Under The Earth”
Okay so, first things first: that cover art. Wow. Take a minute to process it. If this is the first time you’re clapping eyes on that (literal) sucker, maybe go lie down for a bit and come back when you’re ready/when you’ve vomited. Pretty much everyone who’s seen it has agreed that there’s no doubt about it – the art for the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs LP, Mosquito is offensive to just about every aesthetic sensibility that exists: it’s garish, it’s crude, it’s ugly, it’s disgusting, it’s more than a little creepy, and it has the cheap, unsophisticated digital look of a video game graphic. Great cover art can draw potential listeners in; bad cover art can actually directly, negatively influence sales and listenership. But Mosquito’s cover art isn’t just bad, it’s a test: it ridicules the connection between taste and decorum, questions our willingness to be seen with ugly art amongst our belongings; it challenges the loyalty of fans; it bravely, crassly takes the temperature of music piracy culture by testing whether an image that would have been commercially problematic when the band’s first self-titled EP dropped in 2002 can be successfully Trojan-horsed into our iTunes. How badly do you want to listen to Mosquito? Enough to look at that picture every time you do? Remember: in 2003, this band threw audiences everywhere for a loop when they capped off their debut LP Fever To Tell with one of the most wrenching, elegant love songs in rock and roll’s memory. “Maps” drew in a whole new audience for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an audience whose expectations for grace and melody have largely shaped the trio’s songwriting since – an audience so in love with a tune, it was unusually willing to look past the fairly unpleasant cover art for Fever To Tell. Will that audience, used to the band acquiescing to growing market demands and softening once-rough edges, be able to do so again now, a decade later? Will its constituents delete the album art from their online files, or will they just not care?
Maybe you’re thinking this is a dead-end for an album review, but hold on – these issues are important for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs because this is a group that was initially plagued with questions about the relative importance of image and talent in the music industry, the art world, and in punk culture. It’s also worth noting that all these questions also doubled as increasingly worried interrogations of mid-gentrification Manhattan culture, and had previously done great damage to the Strokes while leaving non-NYC bands like Detroit’s the White Stripes alone. Image has been central to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ reception from the get-go, more so than for many of their peers. Furthermore, if we look back on the band’s discography, album art tends to be an uncommonly effective indicator of the music it advertises. Fever To Tell was ugly in its own way, a messy collage of jewels, serpents, and splattered blood, but it also had a certain street-art cache that synchronized perfectly with the then-young band’s New York-specific strain of trashy back-alley glamour and raw, bruised punk. The hand-sewn tri-colored “YYY” insignia adorning 2006 follow-up Show Your Bones (designed by a fan as part of a contest) embodied that album’s refined, slackened, studio-enhanced, and ultimately over-confident sense of Yeah Yeah Yeahs-as-brand rather than Yeah Yeah Yeahs-as-band. And 2009’s It’s Blitz! Was decorated with a stark action-shot of frontwoman Karen O’s hand crushing an egg, the yolk splattering like a grown-up version of the blood from Fever To Tell. The transition from the handmade collages to stylishly directed photography reflected the group’s unexpected shift from a rock act to a synthpop one even as it communicated a concentrated dose of the gleeful chaos and female empowerment that’s been a part of this band’s sound (and artwork) since its formation.
So what you’ll want to know now, of course, is whether Mosquito, in keeping with this trend, is comprised mostly of the squelching, splattering sounds of gastroenteritis. Not quite – the music itself is considerably more palatable than the screaming baby and monstrous insect forever burned into your retinas. But its hideousness does correspond to the role the album plays in the band’s discographic trajectory, especially arriving as it does after It’s Blitz! simultaneously baited clubs (the A-Trak remix of “Heads Will Roll” is now a standard) and offered up, surprisingly but inevitably after the mellow comedown of Show Your Bones, more melancholic balladry than ever before. Mosquito is decidedly uninterested in building on that sound. However, although O’s vocal work here includes more of the animalistic grunts, hellish growls, faked orgasms, and nervous tics that made her famous initially, this isn’t a return to the earliest incarnation of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the version that seemed to have recorded “Tell Me What Rockers To Swallow” using nothing but sweat and attitude as instruments. Just as Fever To Tell was accompanied by an image that possessed the attributes of ugliness but undermined them by arranging them in an aesthetically pleasing way, its music was blues-inflected, sexed-up, no-budget garage rock for an audience who secretly valued melody but craved the punk credibility that comes with raucousness; Mosquito, following suit, offers us an uncomfortable image that undergoes no such aesthetic resolution and, more importantly, music that’s often rough, schizophrenic, and unsympathetic to what anyone expects from an album by a band of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ major-label stature.
What all that means for the casual listener is that this record is chock-full of all the reasons so many love the Yeah Yeah Yeahs: it showcases the enormous talents of O, guitarist Nick Zinner, and drummer Brian Chase on their respective instruments; its melodies tend toward the lovely and indelible; it takes a generous helping of rudimentary pop- and rock- elements from a stock songwriter’s manual and rearranges them in strange, revealing new ways. But it also means that Mosquito, in spite of that fact, exists in a world apart from the band’s earlier work. For one thing, the ghost of dub lingers everywhere – there’s more bass on this record than all of the band’s previous work combined, probably, which gives them a shadowy, narcotic air not previously heard from them. Most of the tracks here (produced by Dave Sitek of TV On The Radio) are marred by low-fidelity recording or the illusion thereof, and seem to be composed, performed, and recorded in a dim vacuum free of associations. The band and their producer use this sonic quality, which renders the album murky in a sinister outer-space way (rather than Sitek’s usual brand of humid bayou psychedelia), as a crutch: it permits them to beam in a variety of incongruous elements and, to a degree, get away with the resulting cut/paste effect. The simply gigantic desert storm of an opener “Sacrilege” finds the trio backed by a full gospel choir, only to switch into the insidious, but beautiful, slow-burning metropolitan paranoia of “Subway” for five minutes just afterward. The benefit is that no two songs on the album are composed of similar building blocks, so things never get boring. The detriment is that not every gamble pays off and the self-consciously dirty production quality doesn’t help the band out when they miss the mark. “Buried Alive” features a disastrously misplaced verse from Kool Keith in his rare Dr. Octagon guise; the second half of “These Paths” could show up on a Purity Ring album and no one would bat an eye (not good news for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, whose sonic voice has always been distinctive regardless of genre). Elsewhere, “Mosquito” and “Area 52” are just the kind of vulgar songs-as-pranks the album art might lead one to expect from this record. Every Yeah Yeah Yeahs LP has its dud or two or three – think the ridiculously jaded “Modern Romance,” the tuneless “The Sweets,” most of the midtempo middle portion of It’s Blitz! – but the problem here is that these duds aren’t forgettable. They stand out, they offend, they leave a bad taste in the mouth. At these moments, Mosquito deserves its own artwork.
It’s a pity that they come close to overshadowing the other tracks here, which, while uneasily compiled, show the band in generally top form. “Sacrilege” and “Subway” are the most daring successes, but they are successes nonetheless. The strange and very satisfying “Under The Earth” plays like a hollowed-out, ghostly deconstruction of the strident rock sounds found on earlier albums (it sounds particularly like the evil twin of 2006’s “Honeybear”). “Wedding Song” demonstrates why this once-raucous rock band has become better known for its downtempo balladry, with its honeyed melody and haunting, humble refrain (“You’re the breath that I breathe”) ensuring that this uneven work goes out on a high note. The best thing here, though, is one I’m afraid will be overlooked: a taut, sharp upbeat number called “Slave” that finds the band committing proudly to the basic forms of rock – clean, badass guitar hooks, a rhythm section that both anchors and accents, and one of O’s most unforgettably beautiful melodies ever – while making the most of the spacey sound effects and dubby bass lines found throughout Mosquito. Although, as noted, most of the songs here are successful, it means a great deal that on a record devoted to exploring new territory on the band’s own terms, the single best song hews closest to what they’ve conventionally offered. In 2003, we learned that there was a beating heart capable of great beauty hidden inside this trio’s raggedy fashion-victim sleeves; the reactionary stance Mosquito takes towards the more accessible sounds of It’s Blitz! suggests that they’re still uncomfortable with revealing it fully. Hopefully the next time around, they’ll really show us their bones, as they once promised with the title of their 2006 sophomore LP. Until then, we’ve got a handful of prime Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs and one fucking hideous album cover.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Mosquito: 1. Sacrilege 2. Subway 3. Mosquito 4. Under The Earth 5. Slave 6. These Paths 7. Area 52 8. Buried Alive (featuring Dr. Octagon) 9. Always 10. Despair 11. Wedding Song