In July 2007, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman, capping the night with “Down Boy,” from their then-current EP, Is Is. “Down Boy” is a dark, sultry song, and the band’s singer, Karen O, swayed in place with odd, theatrical movements, unable to keep a lipsticked grin from breaking across her face. When the band finished, Letterman took the stage to thank them, gave Karen O’s hand a courtly kiss, kept hold of it throughout his sign-off, and, as the credits rolled, gazed at her as if about to offer to carry her books.
Karen O(rzolek) is, of course, not the first rock star to be crushed on so intensely, but infatuation informed and sometimes devoured the critical reaction to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in their early years. Any rock band with a chick in it, let alone a chick with Orzolek’s theatricality and NYC-trashy sense of sex—in 2002, majorly hyped, the YYYs were nevertheless more famous for the beer baths she took onstage than for the 13-minute self-titled EP that was then their only recording—is going to have trouble escaping the nominative ghetto of Chicks Who Rock.
This wasn’t the band’s only extramusical problem. From the first sickly chord of their bad-sex anthem “Bang!” to more than half of 2003’s debut full-length Fever to Tell, the YYYs were saddled with a concept: Their songs were jolts of the kind of tinny, fuzzy, raucous New York City smut that was, at the time, Saving Rock and Roll (Again), and their live show was the best hypersexualized theater of the year. But as good as the YYYs were at channeling the hedonism of their hometown forebears, they were, back then, a kind of very advanced novelty band, writing and playing very advanced novelty songs—that is, songs that came loaded with nostalgia for when rock ‘n’ roll really was sleazy and frightening, back before “Sleazy and Frightening” was just one of the lifestyle sets advertised on television.
For a while, the trio’s peak was “Maps,” the chiming track toward the end of Fever to Tell, wherein Karen O suddenly dropped the ravaging-colossus act, looked you straight in the ear, and sang, “They don’t love you like I love you” 13 times. (Orzolek has always written mantras: She turned her first chorus—”As a fuck, son, you suck”—into an incantation.) “Maps” was melancholy and obsessive, a comedown, the sound of a party girl walking home. It was a great song. There was a video. Karen O cried in it. It was successful. I once saw it playing on a TV in an American Eagle outlet.
The trouble was finding a voice to encompass both the parties and the comedowns. The YYYs struggled with this for awhile; this week, they succeed. Their 2006 follow-up, the messy, lovely Show Your Bones, charged into the problem and fell short of being a great album, but It’s Blitz!, their third LP, finds a fusion between the self-conscious rock ‘n’ roll bravado of “Bang!” and the visceral melancholy of “Maps”—between Karen O as frightening, sexy put-on artist and Karen O as vulnerable, aching city girl. Both those personas are clichés, which is why Blitz‘s mix—a stew of the scary and the funny and the cocky and the sad—improves on Show Your Bones, which laid those poses out like vitamins to be swallowed in order.
I’m gonna try and get at this record’s achievement the long way. In the video for the Blitz single “Zero,” Karen O dolls herself up for a show that doesn’t happen. Instead, she and her bandmates wander playfully through empty San Francisco streets, doing standard music-video things—dancing on cars, pushing each other around in shopping carts, suddenly performing (with all their gear) in deserted convenience stores, etc.—a context in which Karen O’s makeup and snakeskin boots and studded leather jacket with “KO” on the back look less awe-inspiring and Olympian than just silly. They also look really cool—cool in a human way that has no place on Olympus. Thus, what might be a gimmick becomes a public game of dress-up, the kind you play when you’re confident and just a little proud.
All this matters because this is how the YYYs perform: with confidence, pride, playfulness, and originality. Nick Zinner and Brian Chase are as indebted to their influences as Orzolek, as fond of aping them, and as capable of transcending them. Zinner’s guitar, in 2002 an instrument of tinny, sawing New York Dolls bliss, has, over the years, been artfully subtracted, so that now it might appear only as an insistent ghost on “Little Shadow” or “Skeletons”; Chase’s drums are always restless, curious things, not so much leading the songs as turning every stone inside them. Blitz is heavier with synths than its predecessors: They burble above the stomp of “Zero,” pulse gently within the loose “Soft Shock,” and go chirpy but ominous (like an eight-bit Nintendo dungeon) for “Dragon Queen.” Rarely (maybe in “Zero,” whose synths are hard to fight) do the musicians vanish beneath their new lacquer, and never, even as they cede her the center, are Zinner and Chase reduced to Karen O’s backup.
Instead, all three members of this band achieve something tricky: They use sonics to sculpt personality. Zinner and Chase are always, somewhere, audible, and the tangible, charismatic, joyfully muddled woman at the center of It’s Blitz! isn’t revealed to us through the record’s lyrics, which are as gnomic as ever, but through attitudes, tones, put-on sneers, and audible grins. It’s the delight she takes in briefly fronting a menacing dance-punk outfit on “Heads Will Roll”; the meditative bliss with which she and her bandmates unveil the tonescape “Skeletons” (in which Chase does something close to a five-minute drumroll); and, best of all, the delicate delivery of this record’s best mantra—the moment on “Hysteric” when Karen O, swaying inside the stutter of Chase’s drums, repeatedly coos, “You suddenly complete me.” In moments like that, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs define themselves, not by shedding affectations, but by combining them. I’m as smitten as Letterman.