It’s a purple-tinted, grimacing baby with spiked hair being held and stung, or about to be stung, by an oversized mosquito. If any other acclaimed rock band went that route for the album art of their fourth album, there may be some initial cause for concern. But with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Mosquito’s album cover is actually somewhat reminiscent of the busy, random and colorful collage that covered Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2003 debut, Fever to Tell. At that time, it was an introductory image to the three-piece New York band and it screamed artistic and edgy punk rock. Fever to Tell did consist of a number of songs that fit that category, but not all of them. One track in particular, a breakup ballad with an unassuming geographical title, would go on to be one of Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most renowned and universally beloved songs.
“Maps” is an understated, yet impressively poignant, love song that added a powerful level of musical depth to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that few other bands of that time, or since, could replicate. That layer of emotional sincerity and intensity has driven the band’s musical growth for over a decade. And now with Mosquito, that passion is very much still alive, however it’s more experimentally dispersed than it has been in years.
In a Pitchfork interview this past January, Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O describes the Mosquito sound as generally more upbeat and lighthearted. She further explains it as “probably some of the most tongue-in-cheek stuff that we’ve done in a while.” With that said, the new songs “Mosquito” and “Area 52” are literally about mosquitoes and aliens respectively. That sort of recording approach is a rather abrupt change from the direction the band was headed with 2009’s It’s Blitz! and prior, 2006’s Show Your Bones. Both those albums found the band embracing more personal themes of life, love, desires and human nature. Musically, they also incorporated more pop melodies and softer harmonious arrangements. The result was two beautiful, endearing albums that seemed to spawn from the early promise of Fever to Tell’s “Maps.”
Despite the shifts in musical inspiration, Mosquito still features a number of bright spots. “Under The Earth” is a sexy, haunting tune which showcases Karen O’s chilling vocals over an appealing bouncy beat. “Sacrilege” is a bluesy stomper with an epic, soulful finish and Brian Chase’s drumwork noticeably stands out on the track. “Subway” features a chilling monotonous background of subway station tracks and it helps to set the mood, thus beautifully creating a sparse, gentle, and yearning arrangement.
For fans of Show Your Bones and It’s Blitz, the last three songs of Mosquito (“Always,” “Despair,” and “Wedding Song”) are slower-paced tracks that are more reminiscent of the previous two albums. “Despair” is maybe the best song on the new album, and is up there with some of the finer tunes the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have written over the years. Karen O’s vocals are shrilled, dominant and refuse to be ignored: “Oh despair, you’ve always been there, you’ve always been there.” Nick Zinner’s guitar work is borderline playful to go along with the tune’s upbeat and arching melody. Chase’s drums are pounding heavy and all the sounds wonderfully cascade together on the triumphant finish.
Mosquito doesn’t feel like a natural follow-up to It’s Blitz!, which is still the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ most complete and mature album to date. However, Mosquito does offer a fresh shake-up for a band that all along never seemed all that anxious to fit in a specific genre or create an easily-defined sound. Just when you think you’ve got the Yeah Yeah Yeahs figured out, Dr. Octagon guest raps on a track (“Buried Alive”). Yes, Mosquito has a song about mosquitoes on it, but it by no means is an album about mosquitoes. A Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ lighthearted album is still more substantial than what most bands can achieve when they try deep and profound.