One of the more absurd intersections of indie and popular culture came about in 2011 when Glee inexplicably mashed up “Heads Will Roll” and “Thriller” during an episode that aired after the freaking Super Bowl. It’s an absolutely terrible sequence that makes no sense whatsoever, but it’s meant to be inspiring: The glee club is forced to team up with the cheerleading squad by way of a plot contrivance in which they had to perform these songs together in order to win a football game. (What can I say? Glee was bad.)
But that “Heads Will Roll” was even a factor in the same episode of network television that included a cover of a #1 Katy Perry single and “Bills, Bills, Bills” speaks to the level of popularity that Yeah Yeah Yeahs were operating on in the wake of It’s Blitz!, their third album, which turns 10 today. A common thread in the decade-back retrospectives we’ve done this year is that, suddenly, indie music was cool again and it was possible to become pretty damn popular by making rock music. Yeah Yeah Yeahs were perhaps the band best poised to make that transition. They already had a hit on their hand with “Maps,” and as they grew up their music kept getting leaner and more precise.
“I feel like we’ve been trying to write a dance song that we love since the first EP, but we’ve never succeeded,” Karen O said in an interview. “I think one of the big sentiments that has not changed whatsoever is that we want to make a raucous, noisy, emotionally cathartic sound. We were living in New York at a time when people stood there with their arms crossed in the audience and just felt really indifferent or ambivalent about music.”
When Yeah Yeah Yeahs put out their first music, nine years prior to It’s Blitz!, they were already in flux. Their debut full-length, Fever To Tell, is a snarling ticking time bomb, but it already added a softer edge to the clamorous art-punk that they had made on their first EP. With 2006’s Show Your Bones, they smoothed out even more, turning acoustic snappers into material that was more commercial-ready. But the recording process for that album was contentious — the band was at each other’s throats, per their Spin cover story, and it looked like they might just fall apart by the pressure they felt after a successful debut.
Then came the Is Is EP, which rejiggered where the band could go. The songs on it were written directly after Fever To Tell, but recorded by a band that had already been through a more commercially friendly era. They melded the punk fury from their earliest work with the melodic hooks of their most popular material. It paved the way for their next album. It’s Blitz! is full of songs built around that contradiction, of a scrappy New York City rock band playing energetic world-conquering music. Dissonance was one of Karen O’s guiding principles when writing the lyrics for the album. “You want to contradict,” she said. “So there’s more space for feelings, emotions, and interpretations.”
The music that Nick Zinner and Brian Chase were making alongside O thrived on that: dance music that had deep roots in a community of misfits. In the music videos for the album’s lead singles, the band play their rock club origins off their slick new sound. “I’m trying to live out a rock star fantasy of what I’d want to look and act like with this record, things I’ve always secretly been smacking my lips about,” Karen O said of the one for “Zero,” which finds the band taking to the streets to get amped for a concert, gearing up for the show like they’re going off to war. The “Heads Will Roll” video finds the band playing behind a monster having a nervous dance breakdown, a horror show that explodes into a spray of confetti.
Those first two singles are also the first songs on the tracklist, and they represent a significant leap forward for the band. They’re massive, they leave nothing to the imagination. On “Heads Will Roll,” Karen O turns the chaos of the dance floor into a splatter of blood on chrome — it’s a command to move, paired with the inevitability of decapitation. There’s no way not to surrender, not to lose yourself in it.
But the track order is quite deliberate — two barn-burners are followed by two of their most low-key: “What I like least about electronic music is that there’s often an emotional detachment, so it was really important for me to avoid that,” Karen O said in an interview. That’s why “Soft Shock” and “Skeletons” come immediately after, the inverse of the first two singles: a slower sound that allowed the band to take up more space in a different way, wide swaths of emotion instead of rambunctious energy.
That opening quartet is perfection, and it’s brazenly confident enough that the rest of It’s Blitz! could be 30 minutes of white noise and the album would be a classic. But Yeah Yeah Yeahs don’t let up: the trio throws in everything they’ve got, turning in some of the most beautifully tender songs they’ve ever made and some of their most bracing. It’s a major flex. Most of the album was actually written on-the-spot in the studio — an increasing rarity for rock bands as studio time gets more and more expensive — and after the first four tracks, the album spins out with spontaneous revelry. There’s the disco shimmy of “Dragon Queen,” the roaring sneer of “Dull Life,” the zero-to-hundred ramp-up of “Runaway.”
It’s an embarrassment of riches — the rest of the songs largely act in the same mode as its first two singles, up until the comedown of “Hysteric” and “Little Shadow,” two of the most open-hearted songs the band has ever put out. (Shout out to the equally great acoustic versions of ‘em that were included on the deluxe edition.) The rest of the album functions like a mirror of those first four tracks, building up and then breaking down completely. And the band really hits on every note — they were at the top of their game. It’s the sort of high water mark that’s hard to follow-up — they sadly stumbled with Mosquito — but It’s Blitz is sure to endure.
That they were central to that stupid Glee plot makes sense in a way. Yeah Yeah Yeahs had always acted as a bridge, creating a space where the outcasts and the popular kids could forget their problems for a few minutes at a time. From the start, the band was interested in making empathetic music that brought people together, but it took until It’s Blitz! for them to hit on the exact combination of sounds that would make this possible on a grander scale.