Remember the song “Maps” and the video with lead singer Karen O crying with such sincerely that a thousand emo-boys fell in love overnight? The song was so good that it got the Yeah Yeah Yeahs a national TV gig on the Blockbuster Awards. And then there was a lot of waiting, for a second album that never came. Well now, finally, the band is back with a vengeance, sort of, with a follow-up several years in the making. To say this album is highly anticipated would be channeling 2004. The band’s extended lay-off has made this release, which by all accounts should have been a pretty big deal considering the hype the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were given just a few years ago, into just another spring indie release, wedged between the new Ghostface Killah and Flaming Lips.
To regenerate some of that buzz, Show Your Bones would have to be a seminal, life-changing insta-classic. Unfortunately, it’s not. Much like Interpol, a similarly hyped New York band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs second album is a dose of reality to those few who still believe that lead singer Karen O can change the world. There are moments that make you understand why everybody thought they had so much promise, but there are also moments that make you realize that they are not quite the second coming of the Pixies.
The first single, “Gold Lion” is one of the latter moments. The song marches along with drummer Brian Chase channeling Dave Grohl and Karen O at her shrieking, scatting best, overwhelming the song with the force of her personality. When she screams “Outside, Inside / This is a moon without a tide” with such purpose, you can’t help but feel inspired. It’s only after the song has finished that you realize you aren’t really inspired to do anything because the lyrics don’t make sense. This is one of the most beautiful things about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Karen O’s lyrics rarely, if ever, tell a coherent story. But like Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, the phrases and one-liners she tosses off haphazardly are oddly captivating, like “My those quiet eyes become you” from “Turn Into” or “Hot cold season gonna sink in my sweat” from “Dudley”.
The following track, “Way Out” is another bright spot. Karen O repeats “fits around me” over and over again with enough attitude to make Chrissie Hynde jealous. Karen O has the ability, with her powerful personality, to make her slightly nonsensical lyrics sound so good when spoken. She makes good use of it here.
But at the same time, songs such as “Fancy” and “Honeybear” plod along and ultimately go nowhere. “Fancy” has the same military drumming of “Gold Lion” without an interesting melody. “Honey Bear” starts off promisingly with the cutting line “Turn yourself around, you weren’t invited”, but the brief spark of potential doesn’t last. It’s half a song and ends with a lot of nothing. “The Sweets” and “Warrior” and “Turn Into” all begin with a strumming acoustic guitar and slowly build to a wall of sound climax. It would have been wonderful if they hadn’t repeated the same trick in three consecutive songs.
The album’s centerpieces are the sixth and seventh tracks, “Cheated Heart” and “Dudley.” It is the highpoint of the Show Your Bones aesthetic of clean, catchy rock tunes that come very close to being over-produced, but don’t quite cross the line. Stylistically, both resemble “Y Control” from their debut album Fever to Tell. Karen O’s voice glides along, Chase’s drumming propels the song forward, and Zinner keeps himself low-key to mesh with Karen O’s subdued singing. They are two of the more entertaining and catchy rock songs of the year.
But Show Your Bones’ main problem lies with what’s not here, instead of what is. There is no show-stopping, jaw-dropping classic like “Maps,” the song that single-handedly saved their major label career. There is a distinct lack of the raw energy that highlighted some of their early works such as “Our Time” and much of the sexual energy that populated the first half of Fever to Tell is missing as well. As much as Karen O’s screaming can get old after a while, it was one of the reasons her band seemed so fresh and dangerous in the first place.
There’s a good chance you won’t remember this album 20 years from now. Show Your Bones proves what we all sort of thought 3 years ago when the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were on the cover of every music magazine and Karen O was the coolest thing since sliced bread: they are a good, not exceedingly special band that occasionally hints at greatness. Karen O isn’t John Lennon and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs aren’t the Beatles. But they are a very good band that makes entertaining, exciting, and every once in a while, transcendent music. That’s something to be proud about.