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Yeah Yeah Yeahs' 'Cool It Down' is an exhilarating yet unhurried return

<em>Cool It Down</em>, the first new record from Yeah Yeah Yeahs in nine years, is a product of fearless evolution.
Jason Al-Taan
/
Courtesy of the artist
Cool It Down, the first new record from Yeah Yeah Yeahs in nine years, is a product of fearless evolution.

The audacity, to be an artist who waits nearly a decade to release a project — to sit out the conversation that long. The news cycles that whirr by, the social feeds left to rot on the vine. The refusal to chase the currency of constant, insistent relevance. It's jarring nowadays. And when that artist is, say, a beloved rock band that's demonstrated near-pathological urgencies — to wail the most stirring choruses, to plumb the deepest melancholies and the raciest elations, to spray beer in your face and leave you begging — it's an even louder vacuum.

But when you've built up faith in an artist's vitality — when you believe they've spent a silence curating, not idling — it can feel gratifying to follow their lead. That's an even rarer trust a creator can inspire; we don't see it often. Richard Linklater's Before trilogy comes to mind — three films that each waited nine years between release, dropping in on its loquacious heroes Celine and Jesse at pivotal moments in their romance, their conversations always shooting out sparks. In the third installment, Before Midnight, Celine marvels at how strange it is to have a conversation with Jesse "about something else than scheduling, food, work," as they amble through impossibly photogenic Greek ruins — but, given our investment in them already, we're certain these characters (and the creatives behind the camera) haven't spent the past years entirely mired in domestic tedium; their sharp minds have been deliberating, stirring, building toward this substantial dialogue. And though we may have been eager to reunite with them, really, we wouldn't have wanted to eavesdrop on them any sooner.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs waited nine years, too, before releasing its fifth album, Cool It Down. And though each member of the trio stayed busy with various consuming projects, from bedroom-pop LPs to avant-garde jazz labels to children, this sabbatical clearly compiled a pressure they're now releasing, thoughtfully and after much personal scrutiny. Cool It Down is a short, thorny record that confronts environmental ruin and pandemic-era isolation, ending at a vantage of hope that sounds like it took all the intervening time to reach. To those who miss the microphone-gulping, yelping delirium of the art-punk group's 2003 debut, Fever to Tell, and its legendary live shows: Though the band can clearly still harness that energy onstage, there are no glitter-smeared bangers here. But to those who've been following its fearless evolution — its growing embrace of silky production and meditative stillness, through which the band has grown while so many other early-2000s darlings faltered — this is both an intuitive and exhilarating step forward.

As New York hedonism once coursed through Yeah Yeah Yeahs, now Los Angeles pathos does. It's where ever-riveting frontwoman Karen O now lives, along with every other person you once tore up Misshapes with. (Drummer Brian Chase still lives in New York, and guitarist Nick Zinner splits his time between both cities; their long fealty to ever-sanitizing New York is quietly reassuring, like a diner with peeling linoleum and lukewarm omelets wedged between organic markets.) It's also where the band partially recorded the album, shortly after a wildfire season that left skies red and raining ash. "It was apocalyptic," Karen O told Vulture. "That really seeps into your psyche, especially after a year of total dystopia of the pandemic." That angst is explicit on lead ballad "Spitting Off the Edge of the World," which laments the climate crisis while raising a fist with the young rebels meeting its encroach — the kids hocking into the void, middle fingers raised to the collapse they've inherited — in great, filmic swaths of synths and ominous percussion. Karen O's full-bodied wail braids with Perfume Genius's shivering keen (his delivery of "she's melting houses of gold" is particularly agonizing), and together they build slowly through this pain, ultimately embracing an aura of heels-down defiance, a faith in the path of resistance. What makes someone renewed for a long fight ahead, after years of despair? Perhaps more concentrated time with loved ones; perhaps institutions finally seeming to bow to public uproar. Or perhaps just enduring the natural timeline of grief, impassive to our desires that it hasten.

Cool It Down revels in constant synths and the patient noir soundscapes they conjure. On "Lovebomb," producer Dave Sitek stacks them in pensive, rising hues, evoking palm trees slowly catching sunlight after warm navy nights; Karen O's cratering gasps quickly settle into a sort of half-spoken intone, adding an ominous breeze. Songs are remarkably unhurried and nonchalant, willing to mutate in a way the band hasn't explored before: On "Wolf," around lyrics that can dip hard into Duran Duran (not as hard as they once leaned on LL Cool J, but not far off), the keys start acerbic and squiggly a la M83's Hurry Up, We're Dreaming, glacially blooming into a densely orchestrated New Wave sprawl primed to soundtrack a Hollywood car chase. (If Keanu Reeves makes a wrong turn and the scene runs long, they can tack on the sinister piano opus "Burning," the album's spiritual sequel to "Sacrilege," the bombastic centerpiece of 2013's Mosquito.)

Karen O broke through the testosterone of early-2000s New York with her ecstatic howl, which was every bit a show as her nervy stage antics, spiking dangerously against Zinner's waspish riffs and Chase's swingy cadences. (It's even more remarkable now to think of how fearless Karen O was then, as an Asian American woman in a music scene utterly devoid of them, in an era where Pinkerton was still scripture for neckbeards appraising our humanity. Her impact cannot be overstated, and it's delightful to watch her return, queenly, to a rock scene now filled with diverse young artists she helped kick open doors for.) But her covert weapon has always been her singsong vocals; when she veers into nursery-rhyme delivery, it's an instrument all its own, impish yet sincere. It gets plenty of airtime on Cool It Down, starting with "Fleez," the most boisterous dance track of the bunch; she lilts in cheery, familiar falsetto over crunchy bass and a chirpy electropop refrain that pirouettes inside a strange, leisurely pressure — never really resolving melodically, refusing to explode into the kind of big, cathartic chorus Yeah Yeah Yeahs could offer in its sleep. It feels like a path the group wouldn't have considered previously — why would they, with hooks like "Heads Will Roll" and "Y Control" in their back pockets? — and as a result, it's oddly transfixing.

Karen O's equally playful on "Different Today," the record's dual emotional apex alongside "Spitting" and the symmetrical balance to that single's furious valor; she revels in the grace of connection, the harmonies to hear in the world still rotating around her. As she chants delicately, "I feel different today, different today / Different today 'bout you," atop Zinner and Chase's synth-pop pulse that is practically belching sequins, her peace is seductive; it feels hard-won, the kind you can't reach without having, inexplicably, survived something that should have consumed you. (Or so I hope? All I know is, walking in East Village the other day, I passed a tequila bar I frequented a dozen years ago, when they played the band's "Zero" incessantly and I once nearly shattered the floor-length windows face-first at 3 a.m. Now, catching sight of my jutting, pregnant belly in its indifferent panes, it seemed miraculous we both were still intact.)

Cool It Down closes with "Mars," a gentle little blip of naturalistic poetry, partially plucked from a conversation Karen O shared with her son. What does the sunset look like, she asks him? " 'Mars,' he replied / With a glint in his eye." Clearly, he's inherited his mom's romantic brio; the arriving darkness could be frightening to the child, but instead, he sees the potential of a new world. May we all find such a farsighted gaze to carry us forward — through the next weeks, months or nine years. Some things are clearly worth the wait.

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Stacey Anderson