“Cowards,” the first word from Karen O on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ first album in nine years, Cool It Down. It says so much with so little. The low oceans filled with garbage, impenetrable toxic haze hanging over cities, droughts, you name it – our planet is dying. The only saving grace came from a pandemic that made folks stay inside and not burn the fuel destroying our ozone. But that’s apparently over.
We all know who she’s talking about. It’s the same bunch that Robin Pecknold pointed out on his timeless ode to youth “Helplessness Blues” back in 2011 – “Or bow down and be grateful and say sure take all that you see / to the men who move only in dimly lit halls and determine my future for me.” While Pecknold’s words come from a place of confusion and uncertainty, Karen O’s come from her disdain.
“Cowards, here’s to the sun / so bow your heads / in the absence of bombs / Draw your breath,” because if they can’t drag you into war, they’ll kill us all some other way — and it’s pretty clear that those who want to ravage our planet don’t give two shits about those who will inherit this mess. Namely, my kids, your kids, Karen O’s kids, etc. The kids. The kids will inherit this mess, and that’s what “Spitting Off the Edge of the World” accurately predicts. “And the kids cry out,” with Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius adding some understated heft, “We’re spitting off the edge of the world / Never had no chance.”
It wasn’t intentional for the band to be gone so long though. While the YYYs weren’t around, post-touring for the misunderstood Mosquito from 2013, the band members were still active. Karen O worked with Danger Mouse on 2019’s Lux Prima as well as contributions to Milano, the collaborative album between Parquet Courts and Italian composer Daniele Luppi. Meanwhile Nick Zinner toured with his hardcore side-project Head Wound City and collaborated with Amen Dunes and Phoebe Bridgers among others.
Both Karen O and drummer Brian Chase also became parents in the elapsed time giving Cool It Down a heavier tone than previous work. As with all of the YYYs music, Cool It Down has the ability to move you and make you cry, sometimes in the same song. Things change when you become a parent; your outlook adjusts, and in most cases, your focus shifts to building a life for your children.
The huge gap between albums was a blessing in disguise though, as Cool It Down evokes a rejuvenation in the YYYs music. Those put off by Mosquito’s harsher elements will find much to love about their return, with pop-rocker elements akin to Show Your Bones but not abandoning the irreverent tone that O struck on It’s Blitz! and balancing it with shy experimentations. “Lovebomb” sounds like nothing before it, and its minimal lyrics hearken back to the simplicity of “Shame and Fortune.”
From a technical standpoint, this is the YYYs most robust sounding record thanks to the band’s longtime producer Dave Sitek who strikes gold literally on every second of the album. The brutal guitars of “Fleez” make for a colossal centerpiece that will shake floors and reverberate bones. When “Spitting off the Edge of the World” goes hard in its chorus, it’s nearly orgasmic how quickly the spine tingles and the hairs stand on end. Even the downtempo tracks like “Lovebomb” and “Different Today” hit harder thanks to Sitek’s fingerprints, making for a great accomplishment for him.
Cool It Down, a reference to the Velvet Underground song from Loaded, isn’t just about climate though. “Wolf” deftly blends O’s penchant for dance-floor antics and animal personification, resulting in a club-banger with sharp teeth. “I’m lost and I’m lonely / I hunger for you only,” precedes one of the band’s grander instrumentals on the album via synthesized violins and hypnotic beats.
“Mars” stands out as a completely opposite entry on the album. It’s stripped down nature fits for a closer, Karen O’s spoken word memo isn’t exactly the rabble rouser finale that Cool It Down seemed heading towards though. It’s a very honest and tender moment from O however, something that isn’t found too often from the charismatic frontwoman. It’s a fitting bookend, with a quote from her son that seems wholesome and cautionary all at once.
The YYYs haven’t made a record until now with a purpose, and that’s why Cool It Down is their finest half hour to date. Prior to this, they made danceable, likable, rock gems that got heavy radio play, and became iconic minimalist statements. “Maps”, now almost 20 years old, still gets the blood pumping, but not in the same way that anything from Cool It Down does, and that’s because of purpose.
That purpose being that the YYYs now want you to listen closely. “Into the sea / out of fire / all that burning / What you gonna do when you get to the water?” Karen O asks on “Burning”, a reflection on the mass wildfires that ravaged 4.2 million acres of California in 2020. That’s basically all of Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties combined.
Lesser bands return from extended hiatuses with nothing more than a handful of catchy tunes that are forgotten by year’s end. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t one of those bands though and return in 2022 with one of their boldest statements yet — Cool It Down has everything one would need in a rock record in this day and age, and it’s the most complete version of the band we’ve ever received.