You’re a zero-ohh….No matter how breathily Karen O exhales, or how temptingly the synths drone and swell around her, it’s a curious rallying cry. And as the opening track on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ third album unfolds, it’s unclear whom she’s addressing, where she’s going, or what’s gonna happen when she, or we, arrive. “Get your leather on” is the only real directive. Is this a party, an initiation rite, or a club-kid rendition? But as the band surges to an electro-rock whoop, there’s a profound catch in Karen’s voice: “Get to know whether you’re cryin’, cryin’, cryin’ alone / Can you climb, climb, climb? Oh-ohh,” she entreats. Time to stop pretending, kids.
In many ways, Karen O is the spiritual den mother of the late-aughts Facebook strays who embraced MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” and “Kids” as winkingly misty, Linus-blanket hymns. But like so many implicated in New York City’s emergence as a stylishly scruffy rock mecca, and then as a postGround Zero sandbox of retro-kitsch and nü-rave denial, she bailed (to Los Angeles, coincidentally, where an even more starfucked version of the same scene was oozing around culture-hustler Steve Aoki). Now, responding to the laptop new-wave and neo-disco detritus that washed up in her wake, Karen’s back, offering a couch to crash on, but also issuing challenges: The fog-machine stormer “Heads Will Roll” all but wields a riding crop. With the Yeahs’ sound adjusted accordingly (less guitar grit, more synth sparkle), she’s plainly invigorated and ready to reclaim the streets she made (too) safe for ironic headbands and glitter.
It’s been a long-delayed transformation. As far back as 2004, Karen was working on a solo album with Squeak E. Clean (a.k.a. Sam Spiegel, of N.A.S.A.) and told fellow YYY Nick Zinner that she didn’t want him contributing guitar. That project stalled, but for 2006’s poignantly sketchy Show Your Bones (coproduced by Spiegel), the follow-up to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Grammy-nominated Fever to Tell, Zinner diligently churned through an array of guitar moods-from goth-surf eerie to garage-punk edgy to acoustic-folk weary-and by most accounts, rarely clicked with Karen. But on It’s Blitz! (coproduced by Nick Launay and TV on the Radio’s David Sitek), those creative rifts seem fully mended.
The result is the alternative pop album of the decade-one that imbues the Killers’ Hot Fuss and MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular with a remarkable emotional depth and finesse. In the shimmery melodic throb of “Soft Shock” and the contemplative twinkle of “Hysteric” (on which Karen coos, “You suddenly complete me”), you hear New Order’s timeless swoon, but freed of pathos. “Dragon Queen” (featuring TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone) effortlessly strolls past that stoop in the Stones’ “Waiting on a Friend” video, giving Jagger/Richards a funky tutorial.
Whatever the intent, It’s Blitz! feels like a requiem for our exhausted, commodified- cool epoch and a giddy vision of a far-less-lame future. “Dull Life,” with Zinner allowed room to riff, stomps gleefully all over the “Village scene.” And on the ballads “Runaway” and “Little Shadow,” it’s as if Karen O is leading us on a dreamy, funereal but hopeful march to the river, with the coffin of the oft-invoked “hipster” held aloft. Pour out some Stella for the poor sap, but not too much.