Maybe they were tired of being introduced as the band whose singer pours beer on herself and gives good upskirt, but the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—dynamite Napoleon of guitar Nick Zinner, conservatory geek Brian Chase, Karen O-No-You-Didn’t—decided another round of whirligig club-bangers would amount to pogoing in place. Whatever it might have to do with breakups, breakdowns, L.A., or the long and lonesome highway east of Omaha, Show Your Bones makes one thing perfectly clear: There’s something behind those skull-and-crossbones panties. If you’re seeking sweat and sex spangled with disco hi-hat, the song to download is “Standing in the Way of Control” by that other bass-less lady-led trio, Gossip.
No, local slump-spotters, this isn’t the Yeahs’ Room on Fire. Far from it. The first full-length, Fever to Tell, lined up show-tooled thunderclaps. “Maps,” its hit ballad, wasn’t this comfortable in its skin—the pounded beat and itchy Zinnerisms were barely contained. In this surefooted—and still pleasure-centered—leap, the crew rises above the storm clouds, laying them bare. The Yeahs have circled back, in some small way, to their beginnings, when Nick and Karen played together with an acoustic guitar. Until now their sound has been breakthrough, the way Castro contends that the Revolution is ongoing. Paradoxically, it is: He fights to maintain power. And the Yeahs could’ve kept erupting. Instead, they’ve entered a rewarding new paradox: turning those eruptions inside out.
Karen’s crypto-candid lyrics, inevitable but not therefore unmoving day-after assessments, pile on the contradictions: “Lies and love”; “We’re just another part of you”; “It’s cold under the blanket”; “Sleep with the light on”; “Run away, you want it”; “Good things happen in bad towns.” But she’s grasping at something softer, something larger. In “The Sweets,” a flawlessly executed reconstruction of a ramshackle acoustic reverie, she muses on a spark, telescoping the (transformative? biblical?) possibilities: “If we meet again, meet and meet and meet and meet again.” “Cheated Hearts” chimes as if it caught an emo dart in the neck, but the band’s adrenaline spikes partway through, wiping away Karen’s ambivalence: “Sometimes I think that I’m bigger than the sound,” she chants, whipping her voice around until a frenzied Zinner barrels in sounding like nothing so much as an extension of the singer, and an affirmation of the band.
The secret is that they’re all sound, dissociated from convention: jigsaw Chase, shape-shift Zinner, sweet spazz O. And though they’re subdued through much of this album, they’re as elastic as always. Rubber bands hold things together as well as they careen across the room. Karen takes the most liberties here, letting off her lyrics in wisps, shouts, asides, dull roars—anything outside the traditional range, outside the space a singer would usually inhabit and inflect. (The space where, say, Gossip’s Beth Ditto has so fruitfully grown.) She dances over the songs in a cutting, nasal voice that is impossible to ignore but easy to like—it sounds, in its weird way, completely natural. Her tentative murmur on “Maps” has given way to an energy-packed tone. Ballad shapes, Karen now realizes, call for no one timbre.
Zinner and Chase, as always, are right there with her. The most fiery track here, rockabilly reduction “Mysteries,” finds Karen lazily slathering herself over the double-time jump—proof that their chemistry has zoomed past the exploding lab stage. At their most buttery—Beck-like “Gold Lion,” meticulous build-to-noise “Way Out”—the Yeahs pop like Jiffy. At their most melodramatic—vintage indie yelp “Warrior”—they sound like a sweet ’90s memory. And then there are the songs nobody else could come up with, not even the Yeahs of last album: “Phenomena,” the most rap-savvy rock song ever to eschew rhymes, and “Honeybear,” a multi-part soundtrack to somersaults. And so we meet again, meet and meet and meet and meet again.