Speaking about why people want to front rock ’n’ roll bands in Vulture, Karen O recently speculated that “you want to turn yourself into who everybody’s dreaming of.” You start with the image of a rock ’n’ roll star, some loose amalgamation of David Bowie, Prince, and Debbie Harry, and set out to create that vision on your own body.
As she relates in the interview, she never imagined how her specific vision of that ever-shifting rock star would get transmitted into the eyes and ears of millions. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell became one of the canonized records of the 2000s, driven by the mega-success of “Maps” and the fuzzy surf-guitar of Nick Burns powering “Y Control.”
Of course, the problem with an imaginary projection is that when it becomes real, things can often spin out of control. “I had this quite naïve, useful fantasy,” she says later on. “The reason you go to a major label is because it gives you a better shot at reaching the maximum number of people. But—similar to not understanding the reality of touring—I had a very detached, abstract notion of that role.”
That abstract feeling has been hammered down into something tangible on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs latest album, Cool It Down. It comes out almost 20 years after they stormed the gates of the garage-rock revival. If Karen O was playing the rock star back then, she’s now smoothly moved into the role of elder stateswoman.
The album is a short one at only eight tracks long, but when it opens with “Spitting Off the Edge of the World,” you know it’s going to make an impact. Featuring Perfume Genius, the track starts with a large, LCD Soundsystem-style synth boom as Karen O calls out cowards, demanding they bow their heads.
The song’s title, which is also its chorus, is a wonderfully evocative one—it calls to mind both teenage rebellion and Game of Thrones. What would a punk kid do when they reach the world’s end? Spit into oblivion.
“Spitting” has an ethereal, larger-than-life vibe, but later tracks hit with a greater ferocity. Cool’s third track, “Wolf,” plays off a Duran Duran reference—”I’m hungry for you only,” she says—before explaining how she’s grown up. As Burns’ synths furiously blast, she talks about how “in Heaven, lost my taste for Hell.” It feels like a commentary on the wild Fever days, during which the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were pushed into the mainstream as rock stars. Life is better now, “Wolf” seems to say, but there’s nothing wrong with remembering the glory days.
Transformation into something better is a recurring theme on Cool It Down, continuing on “Fleez.”
You know I won’t do battle with no fiction
The wilderness becoming my addiction
I shuffle ’round the creatures and the lords (the lords)
On the road again, I make my transformation
And it feels nice
To roll the dice
Once or twice
There’s so much that’s charming here, from the backup singer-style “the lords!” to the rolling of the dice. Cool It Down can feel like a maximalist appreciation of moderation. Rolling the dice once or twice is all you need, thank you very much.
The next track, “Burning,” feels like something that would play in the credits of a Jason Bourne movie. It’s like a Yeah Yeah Yeahs action movie soundtrack, filled with violins and whispers and showstopping moments.
The entire album is a triumph because each track feels like a world unto itself, and each of those worlds is intriguing. They all feel connected, trying to grow and expand on each other. It’s certainly one of the year’s strongest releases, a band operating at the top of their powers.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.