From the moment they burst onto the New York post-punk scene, what distinguished the Yeah Yeah Yeahs was a kind of reckless abandon. As much as the band capitalized on their forceful presentation, driven in large part by Karen O’s unmistakably dynamic performances, they were also persistent in transforming their sound in ways that pushed against that initial impression. The adventurousness of the group’s first three albums has become a more defining aspect of their identity than any sonic signifiers, and it’s what’s kept them alive when the hype started to die off. After nearly a decade, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are finally coming through with the follow-up to Mosquito, a messy and underwhelming record that nevertheless did nothing to compromise on their creative restlessness. There’s a consistency to Cool It Down that therefore feels deliberate, but it’s also a confident and soaring return that captures moments of magic and vulnerability without relying too much on old tricks.
Lead single and opener ‘Spitting Off the Edge of the World’ launches into this new era with cinematic grandeur that’s laced by an undercurrent of doom. Even as it finds the band at their most triumphant and anthemic, the song doesn’t sound massive for dramatic effect – it tries feverishly to hold space for both hopelessness and defiance, with Karen O embodying each extreme and a guest appearance from Perfume Genius that’s steeped in vulnerability. Halfway through, Karen O – who recently became a parent – shifts perspective in pretty startling fashion: “Mama, what have you done/ I trace your steps/ In the darkness of one,” she sings, before Nick Zinner’s guitars pierce through the sky for a glimmer of light. Throughout the album, the nature of her delivery oscillates between conversational and performative. The following ‘Lovebomb’, one of the few moments where some of her lines and spoken rather than sung, opens itself up for an embrace: “Stars/ Don’t fail me now,” she pleads, falling into a melody as she repeats the word “light.”
‘Lovebomb’ is the longest and most nuanced track on Cool It Down, but it’s not exactly an outlier. Though the LP clocks in at just 32 minutes, the band seems to be in no rush to get things over with; and while the singles are obvious, there are barely any throwaway cuts. Aided by longtime producer David Andrew Sitek, they sound rejuvenated even when the songs are shot through with nostalgia, which the album has a complicated relationship with. Starting with ‘Wolf’, the record’s middle run feels like an attempt to cling to dancefloor euphoria, indulging in the kind of debauchery that belongs in the past. “The wilderness is becoming my addiction,” Karen O intones on ‘Fleez’, which stands out on an album that usually treats nature as more than a seductive metaphor. Yet each of these tracks has a slightly different edge to it: the Blondie-esque ‘Fleez’ nods to ESG’s 1981 song ‘Moody (Spaced Out)’, but it’s also spiked with the attention to detail that co-producer Justin Raisen brings to the table. Andrew Wyatt then lends a contemporary touch to the reggae-inflected disco of ‘Burning’, whose lyrical preoccupation with natural disasters takes us back into the present.
Karen O’s lyricism remains characteristically oblique, but the album’s evocation of an apocalyptic climate feels grounded in reality. “If the world is on fire I hope the most beloved stay protected and that we do all we can to protect what we cherish most in this life,” she said of ‘Burning’, a track that’s ostensibly neither political nor incredibly personal, just a powerful Yeah Yeah Yeahs song. But the breathless intimacy of songs like ‘Lovebomb’ and ‘Blacktop’ comes down to more than their quiet instrumentation; the radiant combination of Karen O’s voice and the music that lifts her up feels equal parts scary and liberating. ‘Mars’, the spoken word poem that Cool It Down ends with, inspired by a touching conversation with the singer’s son, isn’t particularly revelatory; like the rest of the album, it doesn’t sound like the band is really trying to break new ground. In a precious, galvanizing twist, it feels more like an act of tenderness and preservation, edging towards a shared sense of home when the one around us is crumbling.