There are some of us who have somehow never stumbled upon Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are; perhaps we are just not quite the right age, or conceivably it’s because this masterpiece of illustrated children’s literature just wasn’t quite as popular here as it was Stateside. But that’s all about to change as a much hyped Spike Jonze film adaptation, six years in the making, hits the big screen in December. The band name adorning the sleeve of this accompanying soundtrack is Karen O & The Kids; Karen O being the iconic Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman and The Kids being, well, an untrained choir of youngsters. However, they are not alone; this extraordinary and peculiar set of songs is aided by a veritable supergroup of indie-rock elite including Dean Fertita of Queens Of The Stone Age, Bradford Cox of Deerhunter, Jack Lawrence of The Raconteurs, Greg Kurstin of The Bird & The Bee and, of course, Karen’s fellow Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Brian Chase and Nick Zinner.
Even with a cast list of such epic proportions it is vividly clear from the get go that these songs are Karen O through and through, filled with yelps and coos and built around lullaby-like melodies that are straightforward in delivery yet indirect in their exact meaning. The general dynamic of the album swings between varying shades of rapture and melancholy, effectively creating a musical tapestry reflecting the complexity of childhood experience. First single ‘All Is Love’ is a ‘Sesame Street’-style gem that’s unfailingly catchy and with one of the least irritating child choirs in the history of pop. What’s both funny and a little alarming about it is that Karen’s voice mingles seamlessly with the childrens’, underlining the fact that she is definitely one of the gang and not attempting to take the wise old adult approach. Similarly destined to be a popular singalong number, ‘Heads Up’ is packed full of fun with a teasing affirmation of “You hold me up, you hold me down”.
A common problem with listening to film scores is that they are composed chiefly to fit with particular images and often contain several versions of what is effectively the same piece of music, resulting in a piecemeal flow that rarely satisfies as much as a standalone album. Where The Wild Things Are thankfully does not fall foul of this. Although Karen says the songs were written with certain scenes in mind, her creations establish a sort of middle ground – cinematic and moody enough to be put behind the action, yet rich enough to suffice on its own. The two strongest songs just happen to be two of the most raw and affecting ballads heard all year. ‘Worried Shoes’, a Daniel Johnston cover, defies its simplicity to pack an incredible emotional wallop; “Every step that I take is another mistake,” sings Karen in an exposed, utterly sincere voice that is sadly underrated in favour of the likes of Cat Power – something that deserves to change immediately. Very few singers are able to deliver material with such heartfelt earnestness, a task far harder to accomplish than it sounds.
‘Hideaway’ works on a similarly powerful basis, only with a more mature and wistful feel. Lines like “We’ll have a bit of fun watching everyone pass us by / don’t ask the reasons why your baby’s gone” are sung with such a sense of control that only the slightest sense of regret is allowed to creep into Karen’s vocal. Reminiscent of the great Karen Carpenter, her performance here is sophisticated, emotionally charged and, perhaps most importantly, appealing to all ages. Bulking out the album are a reprise of ‘Rumpus’ and an alternative version of ‘All Is Love’, as well as a pair of songs not found in the movie itself; the Nick Zinner contribution ’Capsize’, which rocks in with a distinctly Yeah Yeah Yeahs feel, rousing and addictive, and the wordless, dreamy ‘Cliffs’.
Ultimately, what is so outstanding about Where The Wild Things Are is that Karen O’s interpretation of childhood innocence is multifaceted and completely free from any sort of Disney Channel gloss that would have been an easy and obvious response to a film aimed at small people. After even just one weird and wonderful listen it’s clear that wherever the wild things are, Karen O and the Kids are there too. Further listens only provide the exhilarating proof.
[Polydor; September 28, 2009]