The record that cemented Yeah Yeah Yeahs as here to stay (until they didn’t), 10 years on.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
You need to understand, it’s not that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs embraced synthesisers. See, in the late-00s and early-10s, damn-near every indie rock or Indie-adjacent act collectively made a pivot towards synthesisers at roughly the exact same time as one another. The theories as to why can range from the charitable – maybe they all collectively bought Ladyhawke’s still-phenomenal and criminally-unheralded debut album and were promptly inspired – to the logical – much of the 00s indie scene was built around strip-mining the sounds of the 70s until there were no more sounds left to plunder, so moving onto the 80s was inevitable – to the logical but also cynical – MGMT bum-rushed the mainstream with three inescapable charting singles off of 2008’s Oracular Spectacular and record labels sniffed a shit-tonne of money waiting in the wings. But pivot those bands did: Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand (whose excellent Tonight turned 10 in January), The Killers (reembracing them hard after the Springsteenian Sam’s Town), Keane, Julian Casablancas, The View, even the goddamned Pigeon Detectives put out a synth-leaning record at one point! That James Murphy lyric “I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables” being eerily prophetic to listen back to.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, then, weren’t doing anything inherently radical with their decision to expand from the vocals-guitar-drums set-up that powered their first records for album #3 It’s Blitz!, which officially turns 10 today. And, it must be said, contemporary claims of a full-bore synth takeover were highly exaggerated anyway. Whilst it’s true that synthesisers provide the bedrock for many tracks, they don’t completely replace Nick Zinner’s frenetic guitar work and nor does an 808 boot drummer Brian Chase’s recognisable powerhouse stick-wielding from the band at any time. Rather, the big shift on It’s Blitz! that may have set alarm bells ringing amongst long-time fans and the band’s vocal hatedom upon the official unveiling of the record with lead single “Zero” was the simple fact that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs went pop. 2009 was still a few years before -poptimism, the shift in tides where snobby (and male-dominated) rock critics finally decided to take pop music seriously instead of dismissing it out-of-hand, took full hold. And YYYs in the 2000s New York-based rock revival scene, as detailed in Lizzy Goodman’s essential Meet Me in the Bathroom, had charges of inauthenticity and gender-focussed poseur-dom based around frontwoman Karen O following them around all their lives. (Go read some of Pitchfork’s reviews of their pre-Blitz records, shit is cringey as hell.)
So, the sound of It’s Blitz! was a huge gamble. Making It’s Blitz! at all was a huge gamble. 2006’s Show Your Bones had almost destroyed the band. Making the big sophomore album was a gruelling and protracted process with a shift in songwriting style and genre that Zinner actively fought against, whilst Karen O had moved from New York to L.A. and had all manner of different voices surrounding her than the ones who were there for debut Fever to Tell. Even though that move turned out for the better for Karen’s health in the long-run, it combined with the miserable Bones sessions and everyone’s collective disillusionment in both the NY Revival scene and the record industry as a whole to push the band to the brink. Yet somehow, perhaps as a result of stopgap EP Is Is (a 2007 recording of some Fever-era cast-offs) allowing them to exorcise those frustrations into their most abrasive songs yet, they survived, regrouped, and set to work on Blitz! stronger than ever. They even made a conscious effort to avoid repeating the mistakes of Bones by rehiring close friend Dave Sitek as co-producer – he has credits on six of the album’s ten tracks, whilst Nick Launay of the Is Is EP boards the whole album – and working on the record in sporadic jam-based bursts, stopping whenever the process ceased being fun rather than toughing it out for the worse.
That conscious effort to invoke the Punk spirit of Fever despite the shift towards an intentionally pop sound can be found in the album’s artwork, as Pitchfork pointed out at the time. Even before Mosquito graced us with one of the ugliest cover-arts for any work of media this century, the YYYs weren’t exactly known for appealing packages but they at least accurately reflected the music within. Fever’s messily scrawled, blood-covered and bizarrely laid-out front presaging the confrontational and scrappy art-punk which powers all but the LP’s last three tracks; Bones’ moody patchwork flag signalling a softer, warmer, but at times meandering and less distinctive indie rock record by a band coming apart at the seams. But the It’s Blitz! cover? Not only does it communicate the music within as a burst of defiantly bright and feminine power, but it’s also aesthetically grabbing and pleasing – the stark white background, the painted fingernails, the crushed egg bursting apart in just the right way – which, much like with the songs, you don’t need to work at in order to find pleasure.
Now’s the point where I confess a dirty secret. Despite having owned this album for almost a full decade and finding it to be their best full-length even stripped of the nostalgia bias inherent in it being my first YYYs album… I actually very rarely listen to It’s Blitz! all the way through. It’s not always for lack of trying and this fact is not meant as a slam on the rest of the record, but Blitz! has the reverse-Fever problem in that, whilst that album ended with most of its strongest tracks in a row as part of a concerted effort to burn down the house in floods of tears, Blitz! kicks off with an opening salvo so incredible, so utterly and absolutely perfect, 11 minutes of indisputable BOPS of the highest order sequenced in such a way that they feel like a complete whole, that nothing could possibly follow it. It’s scorched earth songwriting only for the band’s own album rather than for anybody unfortunate enough to have to follow them on festival bills that Summer.
On the one end, you have lead single “Zero,” a major-key upbeat booty-shaking rewrite of Siouxsie & The Banshees’ “Cities in Dust” that, in any just society, would’ve been a Top 10 Song of the Summer mainstream-crashing smash hit. Listening back nowadays, I get the same sensation from it as I do with Sleigh Bells’ “Infinity Guitars,” a song which seems to drop totally within the first minute with nowhere left to go for the rest of its runtime but, thanks to canny production, keeps thrillingly pulling the rug out from underneath the listener over and over again, climbing and climbing and climbing just like Karen O’s vocals until it finally collapses in a heap when said climb becomes unsustainable. On the other end, you have “Soft Shock,” a deceptively gorgeous little ballad riding a spiky electronic bassline, Zinner’s backmasked guitars, Chase’s soft snare hits and O’s cooing vocals, until the climax kicks in where it’s revealed to be a breakup number and things start to turn sour with Chase slamming into the forefront of the mix and Zinner stabbing the track with his guitars. Sandwiched between those two is “Heads Will Roll,” as perfect an Indie Disco staple as you will find anywhere and one that truly hasn’t aged a day since its release, sounding just as much like a hit today as it did a decade ago. (So, naturally, it failed to cross over onto either side of the Atlantic’s main charts.) Little wonder it is, as of this writing, the band’s most popular song on Spotify, supplanting even “Maps.” (It also has a brilliant music video by Richard Ayoade.)
19 times out of 20, the conclusion of “Soft Shock” will typically lead to me immediately resetting back to the start of “Zero,” and that’s assuming I hadn’t already just hit the repeat button on any one of those three individual tracks when they start finishing up. Across this all-timer of an opening run, Yeah Yeah Yeahs not only touch pop music perfection, they ensnare it in their grasp with a tenacity which can make one believe they somehow might never let go again. It bops, it slaps, it bangs, it plops, it blonks, it whatever-the-kids-are-using-to-say-“rules”-now and it demonstrates the best possible version of a mature Yeah Yeah Yeahs. After all, and by their own admission, the band couldn’t in good conscience go around making “Bang” reduxes as they hit their 30s (which the trio were doing when they went into the studio) and especially not now that they were all sober and happy for the first time in years. But they could still tap into that punk spirit in different ways, applying that same energy and zeal to different forms of music, whether it be blowing disco anthems into fuzzed-up demagogues or spiking sweet ballads with bitter aftertastes or just plain outdoing pop stars of the time at their own game.
This fixation on the opening salvo should not be taken as an indication that the other seven tracks are worthless or less than great. Far from it, in fact. The airy “Skeleton,” which spends almost the entirety of its five minutes drifting untied by drum work, and dreamy “Little Shadow” are two of the prettiest moments in the group’s catalogue. “Dull Life” matches an Arcade Fire-like swing in its rhythm to a sacrificial breakdown. (In fact, both “Dull Life” and the skittering “Dragon Queen” are musically better versions of what Arcade Fire were trying to chase on Everything Now, indie dance music that grooves without getting stuck in a rut.) Intended centrepiece “Runaway,” meanwhile, seems purpose-built for closing montages in episodes of CW shows and I mean that as only the highest of compliments. Again, though, it’s much like a reverse Fever to Tell where everything else can feel rather like an epilogue (prologue in Fever’s case) to a knockout 1-2-3 combination. But it was an epilogue which proved the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were here to stay, that they might be the band from that early-00s indie arms-race to stick it out both critically and commercially, pushing their sound to new and rewarding places and becoming that dependable bedrock of the Indie scene we never fully appreciate because they’re just so consistently great.
Of course, it didn’t turn out that way. It’s Blitz! leaked the day that “Zero” was released which caused a mad scramble change in release plans. Then the record came out and performed exactly like the previous YYYs albums, the band disappeared for four years, returned in 2013 with the adventurous but at-times deeply baffling Mosquito, then unofficially ceased to be. The trio reunite every now and again for the odd festival gig or one-off show, but have largely moved on to their own individual projects – Karen’s even got a collaborative album with Danger Mouse, Lux Prima, due out next week – Mosquito never once tried to write a barnstorming pop crossover, perhaps burned by Blitz!’s failure to light any charts on fire, and Spoon ended up being the one to carry the baton of dependable yet underappreciated indie statesmen. Maybe that’s for the best. It’s a miracle we got It’s Blitz! to begin with and, even when the myth of Yeah Yeah Yeahs finally recedes into the wind, at least we’ll always have those three undeniable tunes (plus another seven) that allow us to envision a more just dimension where YYYs turned into the biggest band on the planet.
Callie Petch, fall asleep, spin the sky, skeleton me.