Yeah Yeah Yeahs Confront Modern-Day Anxieties on Cool It Down
Karen O and band dance against doomsday on their first new record in nine yearsMusic Reviews Yeah Yeah Yeahs
New York City has long been the geographical home to the weird, misunderstood and effortlessly cool kid. It’s an urban playground where people go to be the instinctual version of themselves that’s often hidden deep down within. It’s sexy, dangerous and filled with rebellion—brimming with adventurers who were drawn to the city for those same reasons. At the turn of the century, that “effortless cool” musically manifested itself as the post-punk revival boom.
In the aughts, a new group of NYC bands made their way to the mainstream by leaning into a stripped-down, basic guitar sound. Inspired by the original sounds and aesthetics of garage rock and 1960s new wave, they re-popularized distorted guitars and turned them into melodic pop songs. Born from this subculture were now-legendary indie-rock bands like Interpol, TV on the Radio, The Strokes and the art-rock trio known as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs have spent nearly two decades creating transfixing pop rock with beats that you can’t help but dance to, built upon conventional verse-chorus structures and sideswept grooves facilitated by the emotional whims of frontwoman Karen O. Nearly a decade after their last record, 2013’s anticlimactic Mosquito, Yeah Yeah Yeahs make a thunderous return with Cool It Down, an album filled with power ballad after power ballad of pure, otherworldly gloom-disco sludge for dark days.
In June, the band graced fans with lead single “Spitting Off the Edge of the World”, Cool It Down’s opening song and the outfit’s first new track in nine years. In true YYYs fashion, the song captures a rousing release of emotions as Karen O urgently addresses the present-day perils of climate change. “We’re all experiencing this climate crisis through a system which is broken and not really addressing it,” she said in a statement of the single’s message. “I see the younger generations staring down the threat, and they’re standing on the edge of a precipice, confronting what’s coming with anger and defiance.”
Lyrically, “Spitting … ” takes the form of a conversation with her son about the world he’s inheriting (“Mama, what have you done? / I trace your steps in the darkness of one / Am I what’s left?”). That topical heaviness is met with echoing and abrasive synths that equally evoke a mighty resistance and deep despair, paving the way for an eight-track collection full of danceable moments that run the gamut from proactive and hopeful to despondent and anxiety-ridden.
That danceable despair looms large on “Wolf.” Beginning with ominous bleeps and bloops, the track erupts into the same heavy synth we’ve come to associate with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs of yesteryear. A breathtaking range of subdued vocals and one of the band’s most dynamic beat drops fill the spaces between the piercing buzz and intoxicating trill of guitarist Nick Zinner’s strings. Imagine dancing at a NYC LES dive bar, covered in glitter and chrome, and wrapped in a blanket of sadness, and you start to get the picture.
“Fleez” follows the disco wallowing of “Wolf” by evoking the manic anxiety we’ve collectively been experiencing for the last few years. During the early days of the pandemic, Karen O reflected on where her time with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had taken her and the troubling reality that it could all be over. “Fleez’’ taps into that same brand of uncertainty from the get-go. The track sounds like a lost Blondie song with off-kilter synths, Karen O’s sing-talk and echoing vocals, and Brian Chase’s ‘80s drumbeats. It’s the perfect high for apocalyptic times.
Second single “Burning” finds an emotional middle ground among the record’s standout tracks. It’s dark but danceable; guitar-driven but aerial; catchy but ominous. “I’ll release her / From the bindings of her teachers,” promises Karen O. “What they’re hiding there is broke, broke, broke,” she warns, again returning to the idea that old systems no longer apply in a shifting world and that hope resides in finally breaking free from those restraints. Five songs in, it feels like the coming-down buzz from the breakdown and atrophy felt in the album’s opening salvo.
Whereas previous YYYs albums are built on thrills and speed, Cool It Down drives us with its almost manic instrumentation at every corner, subdued and despondent pleas in its lyricism, and an intoxicating, frenetic energy. It’s an understandable response—disturbing, yet hopeful—to all that’s been going on since we last heard from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—and a hell of a ride as Karen O and bandmates dance through a bleak and looming hellscape.
Samantha Lopez is an Oregon native currently living in Chicago. She has been a gigging music journalist for nearly a decade, with work appearing in Consequence and Paste. In recent years, she has also turned her focus to personal essays and poetry that explore ideas of trauma, mental health and identity in a modern context. She is currently working on a debut collection of essays, a children’s book with her partner, and scripts for film and television. When not writing, she enjoys traveling, live music, and giving belly rubs to her black lab, Leopold Bloom.