The Is Is EP may have been a timely, playful reminder that Karen O, Nick Zinner and Brian Chase were still very much around, but simply nothing could have prepared us for this, their long-awaited third album. Swinging in on a colossal mirrorball that aims to pulverise Lady GaGa and a whole array of posers that have sprouted up weed-like in their absence, It’s Blitz! is pure disco demolition. Out goes the guitar-led jittering and in come chunky retro synths that evoke everyone from Georgio Moroder to Erasure. It’s a bit like listening to the first two albums with a belly full of something terrifically illegal, as though Donna Summer had grabbed the trio by the hand on a Blonde Ambition tour past the post-punk guitar and the crack of the snare, and off out into space.
You might think that a turn towards a more electronic sound would result in a simplification of Nick Zinner’s sense of melody, that when not secured to a guitar he might be rendered capable but not outstanding, but in fact this innovative direction allows for an even more expansive and complex sound that envelops and sometimes wrestles with the vocals. See ‘Heads Will Roll’ for a perfect example; the fuzzy synth and intricate guitar line race along together as the vocal refrain becomes almost Madonna-like in its vacant insistency.
First single ’Zero’ opens the album and already feels familiar, its yelping call to “Shake it like a ladder to the sun” could almost be a mission statement for what follows. On the blissful and insistent ‘Soft Shock’, Karen O’s voice is somehow comforting amidst all that is spinning and frantic, while the brilliant ‘Dull Life’ is a viciously addictive chunk of dancefloor art-rock that sounds as if there are five yelping Karens gargling with hot sparks – sexy and yet giddily ridiculous.
Karen O’s typically oblique and at times downright obscure lyrics fit here perfectly. Rarely has there been an emotional arc or a sense of storytelling in the Yeah Yeah Yeahs catalogue. The delivery is everything, and here it is frivolous, unremitting and often strangely moving. ‘Runaway’ begins very softly, allowing a brief breath-catching spell, and along with ‘Skeletons’ is a rare moment of seriousness. “Run, run, runaway, lost, lost, lost my mind” she pleads, but it’s only when heavy synths and the soaring drum-led finale move in that it takes on a more epic feel, almost like a fancier sister to the glorious ‘Maps’.
There is little time to wallow however, as the last big dance number ‘Dragon Queen’ evokes Grace Jones both in its title and sound, a straight-up retro groover that will no doubt be a sight to behold played live. The final two tracks set a calmer tone that offsets all the dancing. Like witnessing a glorious sunrise after a hard night on the tiles, ‘Hysteric’ glides softly along, ambient and almost tribal, while ‘Little Shadow’ ascends and soars as a calm-voiced Karen tenderly sings “Little shadow, to the night, will you follow me”, bringing the whole thing to an awe-inspiring conclusion.
It is understandable this album leaked so early; it’s their best so far and will hopefully whirl them even further down their own unique musical path. But wherever they might go from here let’s just enjoy the moment and dance, for It’s Blitz! could just as easily have been called It’s Bliss!.
[Interscope; April 6, 2009]