By Roman Salomone, Contributor
[Secretly Canadian; 2022]
Key tracks: “Burning”, “Fleez”, “Different Today”
The reinvention that rock music underwent in the early 2000s has finally reached the age where it’s being looked back upon for ushering in a wave of legendary bands. Groups like The Black Keys, Bloc Party, Metric, and Interpol have all continued to release music through the past decade. Meanwhile, LCD Soundsystem and Paramore have all been coming out of long-term hiatuses and releasing some fantastic throwback singles. Strangely though, one of the most essential groups of that scene has stayed relatively quiet on the music front in the 2010s – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The trio went on a hiatus after 2013’s Mosquito, and other than reuniting for the occasional festival performance, the group has stayed almost completely silent. That is, until May 2022, when the announcement of a new album and single came to much hype and speculation. Better late than never, but it makes sense. With up and coming groups like Wet Leg, Viagra Boys, and illuminati hotties taking clear influence from the trios’ classic 2000s albums, it’s the perfect time for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to show their bones again.
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Upon first listen, it was crystal clear that Karen, Brian, and Nick took a cue from the other biggest 2000s band from NYC, The Strokes. Cool It Down is essentially the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s version of The New Abnormal, as much of a return to form as it is a step in a new direction. Most tracks here sound like something the band could have done on one of their prior albums, but the production and hugely varied instrumental palette completely refreshes and reinvents the sounds they have become known for. But Cool It Down actually is a breath of fresh air for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and is easily the band’s most mature and experimental effort yet.
Cool It Down is not necessarily the most grand comeback album the trio could have dropped. It’s watertight at eight tracks and clocks in at around 32 minutes. But even for how short this album is, the group opts only to take creative risks, and it’s rare for one of them to falter even slightly. The production on this LP sounds like it was mixed and mastered in an alien’s recording studio from a different galaxy. Guitarist Nick Zinner has always favored weird effects-pedals and strange recording techniques, but some of the noises he crafts on here sound like they are from an entirely different universe.
The most striking characteristic of Cool It Down is Karen O’s vocals. Her voice has not changed one bit. She is still an incredibly original and captivating singer two decades into her career. Across this album, O is delivering electrifying vocal performances, some incredibly heartfelt and passionate passages, and a new take on spoken word parts. She is constantly full of an excitement that is frankly beyond contagious, and it makes for countless memorable moments on this record.
The album starts with the one-two punch of “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” and “Lovebomb”. Both of these songs are slow burners and great ones at that. The first features some harmony vocals from Perfume Genius that melt into Karen’s singing. The latter features some of Zinner’s most effect-heavy guitar work yet. His chords sound completely drenched in a shimmer-style reverb that sounds like a My Bloody Valentine tone with an otherworldly sci-fi twist. Even though these first two songs have nearly the same tempo and structure, the sonic qualities between the two are night and day. Right away it shows the listener that every song here is loaded with a new set of instruments and different vocal approach that makes each track unlike the previous.
The instrumentation on this album takes a sort of everything-in-the-kitchen-sink approach. It seems that Chase and Zinner have taken a nod from another Julian Casablancas-related project, The Voidz. The track “Fleez” proves that point to full effect. Chase’s drumbeat on this sounds like what could have been a more conventional version of “All Wordz Are Made Up”, but in the best way possible. The bass groove on this track is straight Fear of Music–era Talking Heads. O carries this track with the confidence of a classic Blondie single and some of the spunkiness of a young Alex Turner. The icey synths that appear after the first chorus contrast excellently from the really exposed bassline, and the two come together to perfectly pair with Karen’s adlibs.
“Burning” is as fiery of a cut as its title suggests. It’s maybe the most cinematic track on the record, and features Karen’s most thrilling vocal performance on the entire LP. She delivers the verses in a sort of gracefully-calm urgency, but when she hits the chorus, she howls the lines while an explosion of choral vocals, strings, and a booming drumbeat propels her voice straight into the listener’s ears. The instrumentation on this cut is filled with so many awesome little details. The fuzzed out guitars before the pre-chorus, the bittersweet piano chords that peek through the mix in the quieter sections, and the palm-muted bassline towards the back half are just a few of the dozens of details that add so much color to the track. Also the “Whatcha’ gonna do when you to the water” refrain that’s sprinkled throughout the song is an absolute earworm, and probably the most classic “Yeah Yeah Yeahs moment” on this album.
“Different Today” is the last full song on the album and is probably the best Yeah Yeah Yeahs ballad since the band’s most seminal track, “Maps”. The glistening synths and slowly built up dance beat are a wonderful background for Karen’s careful and heartfelt vocals. Even the miniscule detail of the lead synth line around the 3:25 mark is incredible. Lyrically, this song is nothing too special, but it’s more about how Karen delivers the lines that sell the mood, and make it a fantastic track. Something about the idea of feeling vastly different about someone, seemingly overnight, leaves this hole for where nostalgia tends to become an obstacle. The repeated phrase of “How the world keeps on spinnin’ / It goes spinnin’ out of control” not only ties into the album’s themes about space, but serves as a metaphor for how this sudden change has quickly become worse, as Karen wishes the world were to spin like it used to. It evokes the same feeling as Yeah Yeah Yeahs classics like “Y Control” and “Turn Into”, however it doesn’t sound like those songs, and that’s the beauty of this track.
Cool It Down ends with “Mars”, which is essentially a spoken word outro for the album’s final moments. It’s a strange way to end a rock album, but Karen’s lines about raising her son and him asking about what planet he sees in the sky are oddly poetic and touching. In a strange way, it’s the perfect way to end a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album at this point.
The album’s biggest weakness is fairly simple: it’s not long enough. The album could have used another song as explosive as “Burning”, and maybe a more straightforward, quick and catchy pop song like “Cheated Hearts” or “Phenomena”. The slightly abrupt ending on “Wolf” could have been handled better, and the outro song could have been drawn out to the 2:30 mark. Even then, that’s about all the complaints that I can give.
Cool It Down most likely won’t go down as the greatest comeback record in history, but I’ll be damned if it’s not a fantastic listen from front to back. Even for being a short release, what is here is simply brilliant. The performances, the grooves, the sound engineering are all top notch. For Karen, Nick, and Brian to take a whole decade off and return with a release that is this foreword thinking and still sound “like a Yeah Yeah Yeahs album”, is mindblowing. The band’s best work is always loaded with passion, and this LP bleeds it. It’s honestly inspiring to hear such a seminal band (that truthfully doesn’t always get the attention they deserve) comeback with fresh ideas and a new sense of grit. If Cool It Down is the beginning of an entire new chapter for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, then the trio has a bright future ahead, just like they did 20 years ago.