A Second Look at 2013's Maligned LP
In mid-April of this year, New York avant-punks Yeah Yeah Yeahs released their latest LP, Mosquito. Sadly, it was met with quite a bit of patronizing derision by critics, and the poor thing leveled out at a mediocre 75/100 on Metacritic. Part of the problem was that, with this most recent effort, the band decided not to shy away from further experimentation. Where 2003’s Fever to Tell shocked audiences with its exuberant, neo-Blondie mania, nearly half of the tracks on Mosquito mellow out so much as to be considered contemplative. Where 2009’s It’s Blitz! tested the heavily-structured waters of dance-pop, Mosquito’s disorganization almost defies comprehension.
But looking at it this way is exactly the issue. Every critical review I’ve come across seems to be saying that this album is too different from its predecessors, and thus couldn’t possibly be any good. Take “Area 52,” for example. It’s an unapologetically zany track about an alien invasion, in which Karen O screams about how badly she wants to be abducted and taken into outer space. It has a simple, grungy guitar riff overlaid with cheesy synthesizers. Pretty standard, over-the-top Yeah Yeah Yeahs fare, right? Apparently not. I was surprised to read a number of reviews that latched onto this song as an example of how far the mighty band had fallen. It was so over-the-top, they claimed, that it was really no more than a lazy attempt at self-parody.
But it seems to me that if “Area 52” had been on Fever to Tell, it would have fit in just fine. It made me chuckle, and it rocks out. The only thing making it seem self-referential is the fact that it happens to be on the band’s fourth record. I can’t help but think that these same reviewers would have dismissed 2003’s abrasive “Tick” as “trying too hard” if it had been on any album other than the band’s debut. Instead, they lauded it and its contemporaries as creative, subversive, and refreshingly light-hearted.
Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I think this sort of thing is symptomatic of a larger problem in our collective attitude towards music. We seem to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on the way an album fits into the context of the artist’s discography. If it’s too similar to the last one, the band is stagnating. If it’s too different, they overreached. Obviously there will always be a range of opinions, but it’s probably part of the reason that debut albums tend to be our favorites. When we first hear a new artist, they’re relatively devoid of context and we’re able to appreciate the music more or less on its own merits. As soon as there’s a sophomore effort, though, it’s inevitably colored by our expectations. We’re probably missing out on a lot of good stuff as a result.
To dispense with the preachy bullshit, though, Mosquito is a solid album. No, it’s not as jaw-dropping as Fever to Tell, and it’s not as consistent as It’s Blitz!, but it still has the energy and unrepentant bravado that make Yeah Yeah Yeahs such an entertaining band. So maybe, if you’re one of the people who dismissed it earlier this year, you can find it in your heart to listen to it again with a fresh set of ears. I bet you won’t be able to help but bob your head a time or two.