Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “It’s Blitz!”
The first omens of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ new album, It’s Blitz!, proved to be a cause of concern for some of the band’s fans, who feared that Karen O. and her mates were rebooting themselves with an entriely new aeshtetic; the first singles from the album, “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll”– which, not so coincidentally, also form the album’s opening salvo– replaced their usual punkish energy with a slick, dancefloor sheen, Nick Zinner’s guitar pyrotechnics with fuzzed-out synths, and Brian Chase’s primal drumming with a steady, club-ready beat. Even Karen O.’s singing seemed like she was dialing down the vocal tics and indie-friendly yelping she had become known for, in favor of a sexy pur more befitting a glitzy, sex-kitten pop star than an indie princess.
But as it turns out, YYY has taken a few pages out of U2‘s electro-rock makeover playbook; oh, there’s no doubt that Karen, Nick and Brian absorbed plenty of club music on the way to Blitz, but they also got much of their knowledge of electronic music secondhand, from techno-rock pioneers like David Bowie, Blondie, and Achtung/Pop-era U2. Which is to say, while Blitz isn’t a total reinvention so much as a realignment; those first two songs were chosen to be the first taste we got of the album at least partially for shock value, as this record isn’t a head-first excursion into club music so much as a reimagining of YYY’s gleefully eccentric, eclectic indie rock within the context of techno and electronica-friendly rock. The synths and club beats aren’t strictly window dressing, but they’re not the whole story either.
Ironically, by chaining themselves to a particular style, as they do here, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are able to do more with their music, to take it in different places, then ever before; like the self-imposed minimalism of the White Stripes, the YYY’s marriage to electronic music proves to be a catalyst for one of their most exploratory albums, which, ironically, is also one of their most focused. They play with hybrids of rock, indie, punk, and dance in all its many incarnations, even bringing in some splashes of funk and Krautrock, but it’s also their album of extremes: Not many of their songs have reached the frenzied heat of “Heads Will Roll,” and not many of them have achieved the sparse intimacy of the ballad “Skeletons,” or the soaring grandeur of the pimped-out power ballad “Runaway.”
But if their elecronica catalyst has brought out the band’s exploratory side, it also brings out their best sense of craft; never have they created an album as tight and purposeful as this one, a lean album with no fat and now wasted moments. The layers of electonics and guitars on “Dull Life” and “Runaway” suggest careful composition, and the way the album ruthlessly charges from club joints to rockers to ballads to the woozy funk of “Dragon Queen”– which boasts cameo appearances from a few members of TV on the Radio (whose David Sitek co-produces the set)– suggests not just eclecticism, but, with ten tracks rlling by in 41 minutes, efficiency as well.
The shift toward electronics galvanizes and focuses Karen O’s songwriting, as well, giving her writing a consistency of tone and an emotional depth that blies the glitzy surfaces of the music. As with U2’s 90s albums and Bowie’s dancefloor sets, the shimmering surfaces mask– or perhaps they enhance– the sadness and quiet despair that lie at the album’s heart. This is as much hangover music as party music, an album that sweeps up the broken hearts and dreams that are left on the dancefloor when the party’s over. In “Heads Will Roll,” Karen beckons us to “dance ’til we’re dead,” and it sounds like some of her characters took her advice a bit too seriously; these are songs about the brokenness and emptiness that linger when the high of glitz and glammer subside.
And that’s what makes the album feel warm and human, despite the icy surfaces of its synthesizers and relentless beats. It’s also what makes it not just a genre experiment or a reboot, but a very fine album that may borrow its sound from the dancefloor, but has an atitude that’s entirely rock and roll. It is, in many respects, an album of paradoxes and opposites– of the sexy buzz of the dancefloor and the cold tears of the morning after, of sterile synths and full-band vigor, of thoughtful craft and sonic adventure. It sounds, more than anything, like an album in which the band lost itself in order to find itself, and indeed, this is music that’s easy to get lost in and difficult to forget.