The release of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ fourth album, Mosquito, coincides almost to the day with the 10-year anniversary of the band’s breakout debut, Fever To Tell, making the new album, intentionally or not, a mile-marker for a group that could have easily disappeared into the black hole of cultural apathy that consumed many of its early-’00s garage-revival peers. But like most of the bands that weathered that decline—and, really, most bands that enjoy any sort of longevity—Yeah Yeah Yeahs adopted an adapt-or-die mentality, something the impish trio of art-punks was in a better place to do than some of its more self-serious peers. Yet while no one would mistake the songs on Mosquito as belonging on Fever To Tell, there’s an essential Yeah Yeah Yeahs-ness to the album, a certain frantic angularity that marks it as a point on a continuum, rather than a drastic left turn. In fact, the most radical aspect of Mosquito is its pronounced sense of play, something the band, and particularly frontwoman Karen O, has always displayed, albeit never quite to this extent.
It would be redundant to call what Yeah Yeah Yeahs are doing on Mosquito “experimental,” since the group has always had a certain confrontational weirdness programmed into its DNA. But where 2009’s It’s Blitz! grafted the band’s brittle intensity onto dance-friendly beats, Mosquito takes a much more open-ended, and less studied, approach to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ electric eccentricity. There are lots of press-release-ready bullet points about the album pointing to this newfound boldness: Karen O’s characterization of the album as the band’s “version of soul”; goofy songs about mosquitoes and aliens; a verse by Kool Keith’s weirdest guise, Dr. Octagon, on the James Murphy-produced track “Buried Alive”; the singularly ugly album cover, whose Garbage Pail Kids-indebted artwork blows a raspberry at the notion of aesthetics. Hell, even Karen O’s newly platinum-blond hair, such a departure from her signature black mop, could be interpreted as a statement of intent.
Regarded in list form, it looks like the makings of a jumbled mess, but Mosquito mostly coheres somehow, often seemingly through sheer force of will. None of the songs feel half-assed, even the ones that would seem to invite half-assedness, such as the alien love song “Area 52,” which marries the Stooges’ intensity to the B-52s’ buoyant kookiness, delivered with Karen O’s most deranged sneer. The title track is similarly catchy in its abrasiveness, its loud-soft dynamics complementing Karen O’s alternately hushed and shrieking vocals. The ostentatious leadoff track and single “Sacrilege” is the most immediately arresting song on Mosquito, what with its big-room Dave Sitek production and climactic deployment of a gospel choir (of all things!), but there are slightly less polished gems buried beneath it that will reveal themselves to more patient listeners. The hypnotic sample that clacks away under “Subway” renders the hushed tune beguiling, and the skittering repetition of “These Paths” grows and mutates into a dark, insinuating beast. “Buried Alive” is the most direct line to the disco snap of It’s Blitz!, while the slow-burning “Under The Earth” takes the synths in a more dub direction.
The stylistic showiness of the majority of Mosquito’s tracks sometimes causes more intimate moments, like the cavernous “Always” and the subdued, lovely “Wedding Song,” to disappear among the maelstrom, and the fact that they’re both tucked away toward the end of the record—along with the ever-building “Despair,” which never seems to reach the payoff it promises—makes for a somewhat unbalanced 45 minutes. But there’s so much pep and vinegar surging through Mosquito’s veins, such a comedown is not entirely unwelcome, and it contributes to the snarled, loopy texture that makes the album easy to get caught up in.