In nature, the term parasitism is used to describe an interaction between two parties where one benefits from the outcome to the others detriment. This technique is practiced by numerous creatures, including mosquitos. On the other side of the coin, there’s mutualism, which describes an exchange between any number of parties where all are the beneficiaries of the outcome. In the realm of music, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a great example of mutualism. Karen (O) Orzolek, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase have a distinctive chemistry, an adventurousness that swells when the three of them are in the same room together. They are a textbook case of survival through adaptation. While others in the garage rock class of the early aughts have flamed out, faded off or made erroneous ventures into other genres, YYYs learned new musical languages and elevated their art house take on rock and roll to new heights.
It makes sense then, that Mosquito is as different from It’s Blitz! as It’s Blitz! was from Show Your Bones, and Fever to Tell before it. The band’s fourth album and first in four years is a diffident exercise in how far you can pull back while still sounding like yourself. The gloss of It’s Blitz! has evaporated, and the remains are murky and skeletal. The technically impressive but visually repulsive artwork is pretty telling. Mosquito is campy and over-the-top, but not without subtleties that warrant a closer look. Solicited as a return to basics, it’s actually more of a compromise, blending the garage melee of their earlier efforts with danceable tempos and emotionally searing balladry.
Credit the YYYs, they know how to make an entrance. They’ve never shied away from an audacious statement, but leave it to Karen O to take a song titled “Sacrilege” and make it sound like a prayer. Everything from the gaunt dance rhythm, to the intermittent megaphone wail of the vocals, to the candlelight glimmer of Nick Zinner’s guitar licks invigorate O’s ode to an angel who falls from the sky. Her singing is as versatile as ever, and she has ample opportunity to show off. On the ridiculously goofy title-track, it sounds as if she’s doing face stretches in the mirror, repeating “I will suck your blood” in a comedic range of voices. Unfortunately, that’s the best thing to be said about it, and does little to make up for the lame lyrics and some thoroughly obnoxious bzzz-bzzzing.
The cheese is laid on thick in places, especially on “Area 52,” but the ballads are the glue that really hold this hodgepodge together. “Wedding Song” is a tender, tearful ballad, its power second to perhaps only “Maps” in the YYYs canon; “Despair” is endearing and detail-oriented, and features powerful vocals and melodies from O, and the moody “Subway” has the most creative sample YYYs have ever put to tape. The moments where you really expect them to shine, however (see Dr. Octagon spot “Buried Alive”), the lack of execution and focus is a letdown. For a band that created one of the most rollicking rock records of the past 20 years, a little more enthusiasm doesn’t seem like it would be too much to ask.
But considering what the YYYs have gone through recently, it is nice to see them coming out on the other side in one piece. They’re still capable of brilliance (particularly on the opening and closing tracks), but too much of Mosquito is bogged down by tongue-in-cheek frivolity. As in nature, the push for survival is relentless, but just because you fall a step behind doesn’t mean you can’t catch up again.