After excising themselves of the remaining remnants of their past lives as thrashing garage-punk provocateurs on 2007’s Is Is EP, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were at something of an artistic impasse while recording their third album. Frontwoman Karen O’s insane, Day-Glo screaming-banshee shtick had reached its logical conclusion (and maximum annoyance), and the band’s Spartan set up — drums (courtesy of perhaps the best drummer in indie rock, Brian Chase) and guitar (courtesy of Nick Zinner) — was long overdue for an overhaul.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs responded by making It’s Blitz, a disco-inspired album that finds the band finally taking full advantage of long-time producer Dave Sitek’s ability to create atmosphere and sonic layers. And it sounds exactly like the Joy Division- and Giorgio Moroder-referencing work that the band promised.
The sonic touchstones of disco (synths, dry drum sounds, ass-shaking grooves) inform most of It’s Blitz, but disco as a location and an event is what sets the album up theme-wise. Opener “Zero” centers on the transformative power of being able to be anonymous in a dance club, and the sheer ecstasy that comes with cutting loose. (Karen O equates it to being shell-shocked.) Second track “Heads Will Roll” captures the moments you enter a dance club and feeling like a Viking marauding a small village (“Off with your head/dance till you’re dead” Karen O promises in the chorus). “Soft Shock” starts to bring things to a softer (and sadder) place, with Karen O playing less the marauder, and more the heartbroken woman begging someone not to leave her out of their plans. “Zero” and “Heads Will Roll” dominate the album’s first half, but it’s the lilting “Soft Shock” that sets the tone for the rest of the album, which becomes more about the early morning hours of a night out (when most the emotional baggage happens), instead of the enthusiasm and energy that accompanies the first few hours.
Thanks to the albatross that is “Maps,” Yeah Yeah Yeahs avoided truly slow ballads on Show Your Bones (although that album was mostly populated by mid-tempo tracks). On It’s Blitz they attempt multiple ballads in the “Maps” vein, and they are It’s Blitz’s strongest tracks. The buzzing and tender “Skeletons” is the first — Karen O sings over bagpiping synths from Zinner and martial drumming from Chase who starts slowly with rim clicks and builds his din with moody cymbal crashes and marching band rhythms. “Skeletons” never builds to a huge moment; it stays in the heart revealing moment it kicks off from. “Hysteric” and “Little Shadow” close out the album, with “Hysteric” serving as the album’s highlight. Karen O finds completion (“You suddenly complete me” goes the chorus) over skittering drumbeats, windy synths, and funky saxophones. “Little Shadow” is the most “Maps”-like, in that it builds to flashy choruses, but instead of reaching out to a lost lover, Karen spends the track begging someone to come out into the night with her.
A lot of pre-release buzz mentioned that synths were now the dominate musical instrument in Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sonic palette, and to an extent, that’s true (guitars are on almost every track, but are treated more like accent instruments instead of the focus throughout most of the album). But there’s still a lot of guitars on It’s Blitz. Zinner drops a plutonium grade riff on “Shame & Fortune,” the album’s heaviest ditty, and a glittery guitar riff saunters like hot-shit dancer underneath Karen O’s mostly wordless choruses on “Dragon Queen” (which features TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone (on tambourine) and Tunde Adebimpe on backing vocals). Synths might be the album’s impetus, but Yeah Yeah Yeahs are still a guitar band.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs are also a better all-around band on It’s Blitz. After establishing themselves as abrasive new-wavers that had a female Iggy Pop as a singer on their debut EPs and Fever to Tell, and then allowing Squek E. Clean to bloat Show Your Bones with too many bells and whistles (in a literal, not metaphorical, sense), It’s Blitz is representative of Yeah Yeah Yeahs tightening as an unit and delivering their best album to date.