The first two minutes of Mosquito had me fooled. On the first half of the album’s opener, “Sacrilege,” the Yeah Yeah Yeahs present their standard brand of Karen O-infused art rock that has made the band a commercial and critical success over the past ten years. It sounded predictable, a vague offshoot of the dance songs from It’s Blitz, fit with just the right amount of growling and histrionics. Yet, before I knew it, in came a gospel choir that tore the song in half, crashing up against Karen O’s vocals and creating a new sense of much-needed danger and urgency. It’s one of several instances on Mosquito where the band uses the power of unpredictability to tweak their style and succeed in a new, fresh way.
With unpredictability comes risk and with risk comes inevitable failures. There are a few on this album, mostly occurring on Mosquito’s uneven first half. “Sacrilege” triumphs in that it ditches formula and establishes an appropriately shrill, paranoid tone for the ensuing album. Furthermore, the inclusion of the choir is pretty genius; the pure, unrestrained sound clashes perfectly with Karen O’s typically angry, pained vocals. This sense of contrast and hyperactivity doesn’t work as well on “Mosquito,” though. Even if Karen O is one of the most charmingly theatrical rockers working today, she can’t sell this overdone tune, working so hard to seem like a gritty punk throwback, but instead just sounding hollow and messy.
Yet the band’s “try-hard” efforts aren’t always fruitless. “Area 52” should, in theory, be a complete disaster but ultimately it works for the same reasons “Mosquito” failed: it completely sells its extreme, schlocky aesthetic and basically turns into a more haunting, psychotic version of Katy Perry and Kanye’s 2011 hit, “E.T.” The album’s most jarring moment comes when Dr. Octagon, everyone’s favorite time-traveling extraterrestrial gynecologist, has an out-of-nowhere verse on “Buried Alive.” Octagon provides a welcome change of pace from Karen O’s sometimes dominant grip on the album. “Under the Earth” is another standout, possibly marking the moment the Yeah Yeah Yeahs briefly “went country.” This isn’t Kenny Chesney, though. It’s a layered sonic landscape with a very slight twang to it that sets it apart from the rest of the band’s catalogue.
Even though the meditative, slow-building “Maps” was the band’s breakout hit, I tend to think that the impact of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ songs is lessened when the band lowers the tempo. This pitfall is seen on “These Paths,” and “Subway.” Although “These Paths” is sensual and includes some intriguing vocal modulation, it overstays its welcome and feels a bit aimless. “Subway” is a subdued imagist experience, but it lacks the sincerity and payoff that makes their effective ballads so good. “Wedding Song,” the album’s closer, might be the closest cousin to “Maps,” building slowly and serving as a fantastic showcase for all of the impressive ways Karen O can throw her voice.
Therefore, the album’s flaw may be a lack of moderation. Their efforts to go totally art-punk see mixed results, peaking at “Area 52” and bottoming out at “Mosquito.” The ballads can be as stirring and beautiful as “Despair” or as dull and empty as “Subway.” Even so, this album refuses to fade away softly. The band throws subtle experimental elements into the mix, creating an album that is largely built on familiar, accessible concepts yet still distinct from their previous offerings. Mosquito is far from perfect, but its spirit of experimentation and refusal to take the easy way out ultimately makes for a worthwhile record.