Yeah Yeah Yeahs Find a New Kind of Power on 'Cool It Down'
Published Sep 30, 2022As a covertly gay kid (covert to myself anyway; the truth was there in my voice and hands and stride for others to see and quietly understand), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were the whole of the universe, point blank. Heartbreak alchemized in the throb of "Soft Shock"; rage and humiliation obliterated the skull at the chorus of "Art Star"; the possibility of something better shimmered in the ecstatic surge of "Turn Into."
Hours upon hours were spent watching Karen O unravel and thrash on stage in faraway cities that I'd never be, and hours more were spent with my head against the window and her voice in my ear — whispering, yelping and screeching, filling my cranium with a gentle pulse that synced to my own heart.
Watching O perform for a crowd — spewing a mist of beer above her head, Vesuvius in spandex and fishnets — the inspiration she lent me felt thrillingly incidental. The devotion and internal freedom-by-proxy were a consequence of her immense wildness rather than the driving force behind it; O inspired not because she sought to inspire, but because she sought to free herself.
Twenty years on, Karen Orzolek seems to have settled into that freedom more comfortably, less interested in the white-hot attack than the cool-handed caress, the gentle nudge from behind. In 2022, after nine long years away, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are more intimately aware of their near-messianic status, having watched an entire generation — of fans, fellow artists, the people between — be awestruck and ruptured by their gooey, itchy, open-hearted heroism.
On Cool It Down, the band's first album since 2013's uneven and oddly lovable Mosquito, the storm has ceased whipping houses from their foundations; the quiet of the eye remains. Over a concise, luxurious eight songs that grapple with climate crisis, parenthood, and our responsibilities to one another and ourselves, O makes clear that her priorities have changed — this time, it is for you.
"Cowards! / Here's the sun," O sings from beneath a cumulonimbus of glittering synth on first single and album opener "Spitting Off the Edge of the World," a grimy throwback title that belies the track's stately enormity. The song is a call to arms, a direct message to the youth born into a world teetering on goodbye — this is no time for cowardice or greed or conformity or manners. Across Cool It Down, O's lyrics are as impressionistic and screw-faced as ever, but there's a near-conceptual strain of metamorphosis and freedom strung like Christmas lights across its slick and sturdy scaffolding. "I feel different today," O sings atop the sun-drenched groove of "Different Today," speaking personal evolution into reality; on the electro-shock dance track "Wolf," she's lost her taste for hell in the rapture of heaven, while the stuttering ballad "Blacktop" — perhaps the album's highest high — finds O "opened up," swaying against a lover as their pain flows between one another, becoming something brighter.
"Stars, don't fail me now / Stars, don't fail me / Rays of light," O sings on the smear of cosmic honey that is "Lovebomb," a song that, while beautiful, dampens the momentum set by "Spitting." It's an issue of sequencing, sure, but it's also emblematic of the band's new mode — less interested in tumbling head first into the abyss, the trio is content to float gently above it, moving with a newfound sense of patience and grace. The momentum returns, of course, ratcheting up again with the glitter-bomb run of "Wolf," "Fleez" and the Four Seasons-aping "Burning," but the catharsis is measured, slick, more about mending bones than breaking them.
Rising from the sparkling dust cloud left by the penultimate "Different Today" — the record's only real misstep, a spritely groove that falls victim to O's reverie of repetition and a melody grafted onto the song's body from someplace else — final track "Mars" is something new from the band.
A brief poem set to wisps of keyboard, piano and a shuffling drumbeat, "Mars" is revelatory for its gentleness, its starlight-drenched smallness. "I watched my favourite show tonight / The dance the light does on the sea's ever-shifting surface / Golden tunnel beckoning," O says gently, with a quiet plainness that manages to transcend corniness and go someplace beyond. A conversation with her son, it's the kind of song that the former Yeah Yeah Yeahs couldn't have pulled off, and one they likely wouldn't have even attempted.
This is where they find their power now — not in swinging limbs and throat-shredding wails, but in the quiet places you go in the comedown. There's rebirth in the swirl of destruction, but these days the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seem more interested in the stories that start after the cataclysm, where purple fireweed bursts from scorched hillsides and glass shards are rounded by the tides. "Time held me green and dying / Though I sang in my chains / Like the sea," O sings on "Blacktop" — Karen O shook herself free, now it's time to bring everyone else along with her. (Secretly Canadian)