In last month's Billboard cover story, Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O set the record straight -- no one was trying to write a hit on the band's new album. "You can want to do it and you can aim to do it," said the 34-year-old singer, "but it never happens if you try -- so we've just stopped trying."
On their fourth LP, the sneakingly consistent New York art rockers come out all the better for it. "Mosquito" (due April 16 on Interscope) is the trio's most scatterbrained collection yet, full of brooding atmospherics, jarring concepts, and left-field noises. It was recorded in the same studio (Sonic Ranch) where the band recorded its dancefloor-friendly 2009 LP "It's Blitz," yet bears hardly any resemblance to that much more streamlined effort. In the rural wasteland of southwestern Texas, producers Dave Sitek (of TV On The Radio fame) and Nick Launay brought life to an album that's challenging and conceptual, yet also playful and raunchy.
Having just played NPR's South By Southwest showcase and a recent hometown show at New York's Webster Hall, the trio (which also includes guitarist/keyboardist Nick Zinner and drummer Brian Chase) will embark on a heavy schedule of worldwide touring, which begins with a gig at Coachella. Before they take "Mosquito" on the road, check out Billboard's track-by-track look at the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' latest opus:
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs weren't trying to write a hit on "Mosquito," but "Sacrilege" deserves to be one, even if it's in some mutant strain of Top 40 radio. Karen O belts out a memorable vocal performance with plenty of high-register riffs to get things going and, yes, that's a gospel choir swooping in to take the song to new heights: "And I'll kneel, and I'll pray!" In the official music video, the church theme comes full circle.
2. Subway - After a banger like "Sacrilege," "Subway" slithers along and announces that "Mosquito" will be a weird record, one where the unexpected ought to be expected. While in New Orleans, Karen O decided it was time to write a true New York song (a b-side called "Yeah, New York" was their only to date), and crafted this ode to the subway system. The song's heartbeat is the clanging of the subway itself, serving as an appropriate source of percussion.
3. Mosquito - "Mosquitoes are one of my least favorite things," Karen O told Billboard for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' cover story. "But everything about the album was done to evoke feeling -- we want people to feel something." Listeners who share Karen's fear of blood-sucking insects could feel a shiver when she sings, "Are you gonna let them in, hiding beneath your bed, they're crawling between your legs."
4. Under the Earth
Inspired by roots reggae, the YYYs decided to inject foreign sounds into this "Mosquito" track. The plan works, as a low, rumbling bassline provides an entrancing backbone for one of the album's most memorable songs. With the lockstep low end in place, the song's higher moments hit even harder.
5. Slave - After toying with eclectic, discordant sounds across its first few songs, "Mosquito" settles into a groove when "Under the Earth" transitions into "Under the Earth." this track plays off its predecessor's low, rhythmic energy but transfers it into what becomes a sturdier rock song. Nick Zinner's guitarwork takes center stage here.
6. These Paths - In one of the album's more conceptual tracks, Karen O and company build an eerie song over skittering percussion and electronic sampling -- one that recalls the off-kilter work of synth experimentalists like Purity Ring and Grimes. If you hadn't yet realized this wouldn't be much of a typical "rock record," you'll be realizing now.
7. Area 52 - Just because "Mosquito" is the least "rock" of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' albums doesn't mean it has no memorable riffs. Nick Zinner (who also happens to be an alien aficionado) lends some driving riffage to this track, which features Karen singing, "I wanna be an alien." If you've seen her onstage outfits, you'll know what she's talking about.
8. Buried Alive - Featuring production work from ex-LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy and a guest verse from horrorcore rapper Kool Keith, "Buried Alive" could have easily been a hot mess, but with a scathing guitar riff holding things together, the song cuts deep as one of "Mosquito's" most memorable tracks.
9. Always - "Mosquito" is the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs album since Karen O married her longtime boyfriend, director Barnaby Clay, in 2011. "Always" is one of several new tracks whose lyrical themes explore the concept of marriage. With its sparse vocals and ethereal synth work, the song fits in as a sort of interlude into the album's final quarter.
It's called "Despair," but fundamentally, this is a track the Yeah Yeah Yeahs wrote as a good-natured pick-me-up. And it works -- as Karen sings, "There's nothing to fear inside," she taps into a sort of guiding beacon for an album that had previously been dominated by darker themes. "Despair" proved to be an unexpected highlight of the band's recent live performance at New York's Webster Hall.
11. Wedding Song - On this emotionally revealing closer, Karen explores her recent marriage further, offering bare, honest confessionals like, "You're the air that I breathe." On an album full of freakish twists and turns, it's a bit surprising for the YYYs to tie things up so neatly, with what sounds almost like a slowdance prom song for New York punk kids.