Time for a bit of honesty: I experienced a little bit of mixed emotion, and a lot more in the way of confusion, in listening to Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ latest release Mosquito. But it will take a little bit of a setup to explain why.
Does anyone remember the detour U2 took in the early 1990s? They’d reached a real pinnacle with 1987’s The Joshua Tree, an album that played constantly in my house when I was a kid. Then, four years later, Achtung Baby seemed like it came out of left field—and Zooropa took it even further. When Bono took on the character of “The Fly”, people thought he’d lost his way, or maybe his mind. This deep, conviction-laden rock band had immersed itself in a sea of self-parody that seemed to fly in the face of everything they’d once stood for—and it caused a lot of people to scratch their heads in confusion. In retrospect, it turns out that the band had taken this direction on purpose, as a way of making an extended artistic statement, and things began to make sense in context. By the time All That You Can’t Leave Behind and “Beautiful Day” came out, we were breathing a collective sigh of relief.
Listening to Mosquito, I think I feel a bit of how people felt when U2 released Achtung Baby—sort of a knee-jerk, what-the-hell? reaction. (Indeed, the insect theme is hauntingly similar to The Fly, and the song “Buried Alive” even sounds like it could have been lifted from early ‘90s U2—except for the out-of-place guest rap by Dr. Octagon, of course.) The thing is, after three albums that started high and aimed even higher, this record definitely feels very left-field to me, almost like a throw-away. I’m trying to figure out whether this is part of some master plan on the part of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or a serious misstep—and it may be too early to tell.
Admittedly, the tone of the album isn’t completely unexpected, in that Yeah Yeah Yeahs have dropped a couple of clues in advance. First, there’s the lead single “Sacrilege”, which sets a gospel choir and a big, epic sound behind Karen O singing into what sounds like a megaphone—all while saying almost nothing lyrically. Then, of course, there’s the album art—a CGI baby screaming as a huge mosquito attacks it from behind, both disturbing and pop art-ish at the same time.
Granted—it’s not entirely out of character for this band to be eclectic, even eccentric, in their art-punk musical style. But I don’t think they’ve ever been this tongue-in-cheek about it. Eccentricity at least makes some sense when the person seems to be serious about it; in this case, it feels almost like the band is capitalizing on self-caricature, refusing to take themselves too seriously. As a result, it’s hard for us to take them seriously, either. This style of music is supposed to be dark and angsty, but when the songs are presented with a sort of half-smile, it just comes off as odd. The title track “Mosquito” is really just about as tasteless as the album cover, but the gross-out factor is subdued by the overall light vibe of the record. It’s actually kind of fun, in a twisted sort of way.
So what is this? Is Mosquito some grandiose artistic statement, or is it a misguided attempt to throw the world a curve ball? Is it self-parody, or self-sabotage—or both? I suppose time will tell. There are two things that give me hope about this maneuver: first, it’s getting people talking, which isn’t always a bad thing; and second, Yeah Yeah Yeahs at least seem to be self-aware about what they’ve done. Whatever this is, it appears they did it on purpose. It just remains to be seen whether it was a master stroke or a critical error.