“Austere” was never a word used to describe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. For most of their career, the trio of drummer Brian Chase, guitarist Nick Zinner and above all vocalist Karen O have embodied chaos, a particular type of disorderly energy that very rarely survives the transition from bar gigs from midnight to festival headliners.
But that spirit traveled and endured with them for a decade and four albums. And two decades after their guttural emergence from New York’s post-9/11 rock scene, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have scored a hat trick with their fifth album. cool it down, September 30 on Secretly Canadian. The project is a resounding return that enhances their already substantial legacy, a thoughtful reflection on our contemporary situation, and a tender love letter to generations – of musicians including Japanese Breakfast‘s Michelle Zauner and the band members’ own children – who admire- them for answers to our most burning questions about life, love and survival in the world. All wrapped up in eight songs (or rather seven songs and an epitaph), the disc is austere like a photograph of the night sky: deceptively simple, inherently serious and necessarily wondrous.
Although the last real Yeah Yeah Yeahs album was the fever dream of 2013 Mosquito, its three core members have been busy as musicians with solo side projects, and also as people in the world. (The distinction between “musician” and “person” is important because of how the music industry has changed under the duel of Spotify and TikTok, forces the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have never faced, even within the major constraints and label expectations to which they were subject through their contract with Interscope Records.)Mosquitothey’ve spent much of the past ten years secure in a legacy made possible in part by “Maps,” the 2003 sleeper hit that’s now a canonical entry in the greatest love songs of all time, and a wide discography whose content nimbly follows an aesthetic and emotional evolution from spit and grit to sparkle and shine.
So why cool it down now? In an interview with the new yorker, O alludes to a kind of seven-year-old itch (in her case, she draws a line at six) in which the “cravings” for certain “kinds of euphorias” return. Not the entropy heights of pretty young things, back when she was one of the only women in a group of twenty-something men, and back when she got drunk in oblivion in order to “break shyness”. But the kind of high an artist pursues when she no longer has a regular space or directive to perform, both from the pandemic crush on live music and the recognition that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs don’t are not only a family in spirit but also in fact now, as she and Chase have children.
O’s has shared in interviews that one of the driving forces behind the album is our heating world (hence the title). The single and album opener “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” begins with a “Cowards!” declarative, the group’s provocation to themselves and to everyone who should have known not to let the Earth turn into irreversible climate change. O openly laments, “Mom, what have you done? / I’m tracing your steps / Into someone’s darkness / Am I what’s left?” This abandoned world is what the band invokes again on “Burning”: “Into the sea, out of fire/ All that burning”.
The group is as interested in the ashes of the apocalypse as in its flames. On “Lovebomb”, O’s voice floats like a buoy, “I, I, I, I, I, I, I”, above a sea of synths before she calls the call of a siren: “Come close/ Come close/ Closer now / Plus near now. The vocal production stutters like a glitch to match the song’s restless serenity captured in the acidic echo lines of O, “Stars/ Don’t fail me now”. “Lovebomb” and “Blacktop” both work like the standout track “Hysteric” on the third album It’s Blitz!, serving as reflective cigarette breaks from the swagger and swagger of more classic Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs—in this album’s case, “Wolf” and “Fleez” and “Burning.” These tracks are a reminder that the band can still provide warmth, but also how much they (and you) have matured beyond their spitfire debut. (At times, the album’s production reminded me of Metric, another band whose arc charts a journey from bomb rock to synth-pop.)
The group is as interested in the ashes of the apocalypse as in its flames.
The most revealing piece of cool it down is the penultimate “Different Today”, on which O pleads, “I don’t wanna wait till you go / To say what I really mean.” The song’s dizzying outro alone – “Spinning spinning spinning spinning/ Spinning spinning spinning spinning/ Spinning spinning spinning out” – explicitly states the disorientation at the heart of the album. But outside the context of cool it downthe song works and feels like an opening in a musical, an aberrant preamble to an even sweeter and more didactic project.
Closer album “Mars” is a poem inspired by the son of O. Over flashing flashes of production, she recites, “I watched my favorite show tonight,” a reference to watching the sky change from sunset to night. After making an observation of “Heavenly fire contained / In full circle” something in the sky, his son identifies the object as the planet Mars. It’s probably no weird, poetic coincidence that Mars is also the name of a dive bar from the band’s early days — and a fitting kind of mascot for the band. For most of Yeah Yeah Yeahs career, they mimicked the immolation of the planet. But now our world is in flames. So for the first time, decades after their phoenix-like ascension, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have examined their ashes, coaxed their most stubborn embers, and controlled the burning of their baby.
“Cool It Down” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs will be released on September 30 via Secretly Canadian.