The Yeah Yeah Yeahs never had a plan; things just worked out for them. The trio arrived in the exact right place at the exact right time to create a deafening hype-storm, but the three musicians at its center never seemed to be contriving that hype-storm. The skronky, horny garage rock of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ self-titled debut EP simply took the sounds that were floating in the ether at the time, compressed them into brief and deadly little riff-monsters, and hit the world at a moment when three New York barfly scene kids could seem like the coolest human beings on earth. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs helped influence a certain enduring version of Brooklyn cool, and then they capitalized on that version, but they never stuck to it. They kept moving.
On much of Fever To Tell, their frantic 2003 full-length debut, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seemed like they were using their Interscope advance to create a big-stage version of Fort Thunder noise-punk. It must’ve taken real self-destructive glee for Karen O to dedicate so much of her band’s first major-label single to unhinged screaming: “Choke! Choke! Choke! Choke! Choke!” When the YYYs did stumble backward into a radio hit, with the heart-ripped-open power ballad “Maps,” even that seemed like an accident. “Maps” was almost pop music — the the point where Max Martin and his collaborators heard “Maps,” lamented how close to perfection it was, and then used its raw materials to assemble one of that decade’s defining pop anthems.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs indirectly made “Since U Been Gone” possible, and they could’ve tried to make their own “Since U Been Gone” once that became a possibility. They didn’t. Instead, they lurched into the swirling and starry-eyed psychedelia of Show Your Bones. When the band arrived at the euphoric dance-rock swagger of It’s Blitz!, the result hit harder because they weren’t just jumping on a bandwagon. They arrived at that sound organically, in their own time. If they’d dropped “Heads Will Roll” at the height of the DFA boom, the would’ve come off as trend-humpers. Instead, that song has become a Halloween-playlist perennial. Their whole arc was so jumbled and intuitive and ass-backwards that you couldn’t help but be charmed.
Those first three albums, arriving all spaced-out over the course of a decade, went in so many different directions that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs never seemed to have any fixed identity. This worked out to their advantage. The world wanted to see this band operating on gut feeling, flying from one sound to another on drunken whim and delirious circumstance. The careerist bands from that early YYYs era — and there were so many of them — never seemed to last. The YYYs stuck around because they did the wrong things at the right times and because their perverse instincts yielded so many great songs. When they finished up their Interscope contract with Mosquito nearly a decade ago, the band sounded newly mature and just a tiny bit stagnant. I wonder if they realized that — if that’s why they gave the album that endearingly ass-ugly cover art. It’s hard to accuse anyone of settling into musical middle age when your album looks like that.
In the near-decade since their last album, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have fucked around and, through no fault of their own, become a nostalgia act. The turn-of-the-millennium New York rock moment that spawned the band has become fodder for books and documentaries. It’s gone down in history as the last moment that scummy, arty guitar-rock bands had any theoretical impact on the mainstream zeitgeist, even if the actual mainstream impact that those bands had was almost incidental, like the time that the YYYs accidentally inspired “Since U Been Gone.” These days, there are whole festivals dedicated to blog-rock nostalgia, and the YYYs know that, since they’ve headlined at least one of them. So how does a seat-of-the-pants band react to becoming an object of back-in-day memories? I guess that band makes Cool It Down.
I don’t hear that old restlessness at work in Cool It Down, the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs album in nine years, but I do hear some kind of restlessness at work. Cool It Down, like Mosquito before it, has bits and pieces of the first three YYYs albums in it. There’s no mistaking Karen O’s empathetic yowl, and certain musical decisions on Cool It Down can be traced to the sounds of those older records. The YYYs are working with familiar collaborators, and their TV On The Radio contemporary and longtime producer David Andrew Sitek in particular casts a huge shadow of Cool It Down. (Sitek has songwriting credits on four of the eight songs on Cool It Down, which is one more than actual YYYs drummer Brian Chase.) But the YYYs are no longer capable of conjuring the spinning-out beer-spitting unhinged energy of their early days. They kind of sound like they miss it.
Karen O hasn’t lost any of her presence on the microphone in the past nine years. Karen can sing, but her presence matters a whole lot more than any pure vocal ability. She puts tremendous personality into every squawk and hum and ululation. One of the real issues with Crush Songs, the lo-fi and low-key solo album that Karen released in 2014, was that it didn’t take advantage of all that personality. On Cool It Down, we get all of it. This time, though, there’s a funny disconnect happening. Karen sings a lot about nature and wildness. She won’t do battle with no fiction, and the wilderness is becoming her addiction. (Karen’s lyrics are pretty funny.) But while she evokes the primal urgency of the natural world, Karen herself sounds older and more sedate. As a result, all that wilderness talk takes on a feeling of longing — or, perhaps, of nostalgia.
By that same token, the band really rocks on Cool It Down, but it rocks in ways that are mostly calm and professional. Nick Zinner once played guitar like a baby mad scientist exploding the beakers in his lab. Here, he’s all texture. There’s probably more synth than guitar on Cool It Down, or maybe I’m just confused because the guitars often sound like synths. In any case, Karen’s vocals have to bring all the explosive urgency because the music mostly sticks to the same groove. It’s an extremely cool groove, a psychedelic flare-up that’s not too different than what Perfume Genius, the guest on the album-opening single “Spitting Off The Edge Of The World,” has been doing lately. But the YYYs don’t do anything musically mind-blowing on Cool It Down, and I honestly don’t think they’re really trying.
To their great credit, the YYYs don’t do anything easy on Cool It Down. The songs mostly veer away from verse-chorus-verse structure, and Karen’s lyrics strain for elemental beat-poetry imagery, never worrying about sounding goofy. Karen always made herself vulnerable even when her lyrics were mostly jokes about sucky fucks and art stars, and she has lines on Cool It Down that she would’ve never uttered aloud if she was worried about becoming a snark-target: “I watched my favorite show tonight/ The dance the light does on the sea’s ever-shifting surface.” Now, though, the YYYs are making the same kinds of oblique decisions that they’ve made before. It’s striking to hear them coming back in this new context, when their lives and the life of the world have shifted so much since we last heard them, but you shouldn’t look to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs for radical inventiveness these days. Really, that wouldn’t be fair. They’ve been a band for more than 20 years. It’s enough just to hear them doing some version of their thing again.
That’s what ultimately makes Cool It Down work. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs sound like themselves, and that’s a good thing. We can hear them reconnecting and figuring out what a grown-up and middle-aged version of the YYYs should be. Sometimes, that means plugging themselves back into their own old favorites, quoting and interpolating bits of songs from ESG and the Four Seasons. Sometimes, it means bringing in former Beastie Boys collaborator Money Mark to play keyboards or relying on their old buddy Dave Sitek for prettily distressed textures. Sometimes, it means coming up with majestic, larger-than-life grooves — big, big sounds that twinkle and echo.
In the time since Mosquito, the YYYs have reassembled a few times to play shows. I wonder if they mostly think of themselves as a live act these days. The songs on Cool It Down should sound awesome on big-venue soundsystems, with a fancy light show erupting all around the band, while Karen O does her whole shamanistic-superhero trip. The real test of any legacy act is whether the new songs make for bathroom-break material when the band plays live. The songs on Cool It Down are not bathroom-break material.
But the songs on Cool It Down aren’t likely to become your favorite Yeah Yeah Yeahs songs either. Ultimately, Cool It Down is a confident, sharp new record from a band who really had no need to make a new record at all. The YYYs’ legacy is secure, so a pretty-good new album is just a bonus. Cool It Down is a pretty good new album from a band that’s made a couple of great ones. The new record is not the wild-eyed Roman candle that this band was once capable of making, but nobody can keep that feeling going forever, and plenty of people have ripped themselves apart trying. The YYYs have kept their shit together, which is more than I can say about most of the bands who came from their time and place. That’s good enough. I’ll take it.
Cool It Down is out 9/30 on Secretly Canadian.