When the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ensnared the rock consciousness with Fever to Tell almost 20 years ago, the band’s true magic was never bound to where they’d been — the romanticized New York underground pedigree, those “had to be there” early shows — but where they might be going.
With Fever, in all its exhilarating, teeth-baring bar room glory, every moment felt as though Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase were hurtling toward the precipice of something extraordinary, and perhaps with a little more time to grow and live, the young trio would bloom into one of the most indispensable rock bands of the 21st century.
But that never really happened.
The follow-up, 2006’s Show Your Bones, was more tentative and familiar in an uninspiring way — wholly forgettable, especially 15 years later. The alt-pop dance mania of It’s Blitz! in 2009 was, to its credit, a genuinely thrilling, fan-awaited progression — “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” remain bulletproof singles, and were a shrewd pivot. But then came another misstep in the lo-fi art-punk scuzz of Mosquito in 2013; ambitious, foreboding arrangements, but the YYYs’ least listenable project to date (by quite a bit).
Now, nine years later, the group has returned with Cool It Down, an eight-track quickie of a record, which uncovers a few moments of bliss and power, yet in no way approaches the vitality or white-knuckle immediacy of the band’s best work.
Like Blitz!, load-bearing synth drives the album’s post-guitar aesthetic, established instantly in the opening track “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” and its over-the-falls cascade of digital daze. The effect is something of a David Bowie tribute, and sounds a good deal like Wolf Alice’s “Delicious Things,” a dreamy track released last year. Though “Spitting” is more unsettled, featuring shivering lines from guest Mike Hadreas (aka Perfume Genius) and notions of environmental destruction and the world we’re leaving our children: “Never had no chance, nowhere to hide.”
The lead single “Burning,” the band’s most thrilling song since Blitz!, is more explosive as O’s patented seethe leaps through the chorus: “Into the sea, out of fire / All that burning,” is about California’s rampant wildfires. The live string arrangement is lush and inviting, as is the piano melody interpolated from the Four Seasons’ “Beggin,’” (likely better known now as a Måneskin song).
The annotated sampling continues with “Fleez,” a thumping tune that namedrops ESG and incorporates elements of NYC art-funk influencers’ 1981 song “Moody (Spaced Out)” (Renee Scroggins is given a writing credit). It’s a playful cut and kind nod to a group that highly inspired O as a young songwriter — it also feels like a St. Vincent song, but then again, does Annie Clark exist in the same way without Karen O?
The album strives for sensuality on sister tracks “Lovebomb” and “Blacktop,” both of which closely mimic Lana Del Rey’s dusky, breathless touch they could be B-sides plucked from Ultraviolence. “Come close, closer now,” O repeats on the former track, a late-night burner with intimacy bordering on claustrophobia. The latter tune doubles down on ethereal dream-synth and lilts.
The record finishes with a spoken poem written by O, called “Mars,” in which she notes the imagination of her 7-year-old son — a telling finale when you consider the last track on Mosquito was “Wedding Song,” which O sang at her own nuptials in 2011. Suddenly nine years between albums seems like a long time, the band has accomplished plenty in the interim: O released the very good Lux Prima with Danger Mouse in 2019; Zinner made an album with his hardcore band Head Wound City and worked with Phoebe Bridgers; Chase started Chaiken Records.
But if we’re talking about band trajectory and the places we thought the Yeah Yeah Yeahs could go, Cool It Down, is less of a step forward, or in any meaningful direction, and more of a twirl in place. It’s a pleasant and polished listen, more palatable than its predecessor, with glimpses of the band’s top gear. But fans anticipating some return to the frenzy of “Tick,” “Man” or “Pin” will keep waiting, as it appears much of the fury and intrigue once achieved by the group has been scrubbed away by the very things that could have launched them into the stratosphere: life and time.