November 25, 2022

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs Makes Some Cool Music


If you had asked me a month ago “What kind of music do the Yeah Yeah Yeahs make?” I would have answered “Garage punk or retro post-punk.” And I would have been right. One listen to their most famous song, “Maps”, and you would agree that it is typical early 2000s retro post-punk. Their sound combined minimalist synths with loud guitar solos and simple, tuneful vocals. The comparison to the Strokes was obvious.

None of that earlier sound is evident in their latest release Cool It Down. The Yeah Yeah yeahs’ first album in seven years, it is very much a dance-oriented record. Which pop dance genre is unclear. Cool It Down employs a variety of dance music styles including techno, funk, trip hop, and even a touch of EDM. More importantly, there is a clear Bowie influence, especially in the synths. We’re talking Scary Monster-era Bowie when he was experimenting with minimalist synths and unusual sounds on songs such as on Ashes to Ashes.

In fact, experimentalism is a central theme here. It’s easy to think this is retro but only insofar as it pulls from retro experimentalism. There are classic orchestrations, tempo changes, big sounds, small sounds, spoken word, and other deviations from rock and pop norms. This is evident from the opening song (or salvo if you will), “Spitting Off the Edge of the World”. It’s everything “Maps” is not. Dramatic, theatrical, and anthematic; Grandiose even. It is a much bigger song than one would expect from this band. I immediately thought that they were maybe doing some kind of retro U2 album. Nope. The very next song, “Lovebomb” disabused me of that notion with its shimmering guitars and ethereal vocals, augmented with a trip hop beat. It was as if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs took early Lana Del Rey (when she was still good) and mixed it with some London Grammar to produce something that was neither. I could draw parallels with dream pop and shoegaze but that wouldn’t be quite right. It was both new and old at the same time.

The Bowie quality is found throughout as well. Both “Blacktop” and “Wolf” seem to have been plucked from different Bowie eras. The former, especially, is like a less angsty “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” if remixed by Devo. The austere synths and sequencers of Bowie’s Berlin period are found throughout Cool It Down, but especially on “Fleez” and “Blacktop”.

After all of that experimental music, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs change gears once more with a lightweight – bordering on twee – piece of jaunty dance music called “Different Today”. It’s the type of tune you would listen to on headphones while walking down a city street in spring on your way to your favorite locally owned, ethically sourcing, coffee shop. It’s different from the rest of the album, but not unwelcome.

My only complaint about Cool It Down is the last song, “Mars”. It’s full of chimes and slow beats which are trying to fortify some bland spoken word poetry. It’s a weak ending to an otherwise interesting album. It may have been better in the middle of the album but following from “Different Today” it sounds like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs just ran out of steam before the end of the album.

If you are a Yeah Yeah Yeahs fan, this may not be what you were expecting. To me, that’s a positive sign of growth. They are reaching a bit but in a good direction. Any band that just does the same thing for 20 years risks becoming a parody of themselves. You have to experiment; This was a good experiment.