Thirteen years after the tectonic realignment that unleashed the White Stripes, the Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Stripes are extinct. The Strokes have evolved, swapping the wiry sounds of the mid-1970s for the synthetics of the 80s. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, meanwhile – arguably funnier, sweeter, more luridly coloured and yet, somehow, more punk rock than the rest of their cohort – remain recognisable as the same gang of three, despite drummer Brian Chase's increasing resemblance to a Talmudic scholar and Karen Orzolek's – better known as Karen O – recent shock defection to the peroxide camp.
They have survived heavy weather: injuries, friction between O and guitarist Nick Zinner ("We hated each other," he recently told the New York Times), and O's move to LA in 2004 and recent move back to NYC. The band decamped to a Brooklyn basement to record Mosquito, their fourth offering, with faithful producer David Sitek and Nick Launay (Nick Cave).
Last time around, their third album, It's Blitz! (2009), threw everything the Yeahs had at the mainstream: slickness, disco, gloss. By rights it should have been a runaway success, the logical commercial endpoint to the Yeahs' journey from fake blood-spattered art-punk squalling to the status of glamorous A-list anomalies. In O, the Yeahs have been blessed with one of the most riveting frontpeople of the past 25 years, a woman who has surfed the knife-edge of outrageousness and knowing femininity with more panache than virtually any other currently working. For all the cathartic zing of their more extrovert soundtracks, such as Blitz!'s euphoric Zero, these were usually matched by ever lovelier meditations. Their early tear-jerking hit Maps has a number of later ballady analogues. On Mosquito, these are Always (synth washes; promises of everlasting love) and Wedding Song (birdsong, talk of angels, more everlasting love).
Somehow, though, the Yeahs' numbers didn't come up. In the UK It's Blitz! was certified gold (100,000+ copies sold). In the current climate that's not bad going (especially if you factor in 3.5m+ UK Spotify plays), but is still rather shy of what their label must have hoped after 2003's Fever to Tell sold nearly half a million worldwide.
In a perhaps not unrelated move, the Yeahs have been forecasting a return to basics on their fourth, Mosquito. And some of it is feral and raucous. At Mosquito's most fundamental, Area 52 tilts at the Stooges, the Cramps and the aliens, an ongoing interest of Zinner's. The title track is endearingly fixated with blood-sucking. But once a band have acquired a taste for production, it's hard to de-evolve. Rather, the attitude here is: let's cut loose. The rapper Kool Keith (aka Dr Octagon) lands on the mid-tempo Buried Alive, which also finds James Murphy at the mixing desk. The intriguing Under the Earth ("Down down under the earth goes another lover," sings O like a nonchalant serial killer), meanwhile, borrows some nice spaciness from dub reggae.
The problem is, for a band whose name echoes with the affirmative, none of this feels like a definitive lunge towards some loftier height, either artistic or commercial. Mosquito is fun, it's a little trippy, it samples the subway on Subway; and, in Sacrilege, it has another copper-bottomed YYY anthem. But the sadness always lurking behind Orzalek's lurid onstage persona seems, if anything, ratcheted up a little (one track is called Despair).
Perhaps the Yeahs have come full circle. As satisfying as that is, the plethora of projects that they have been involved with – O's opera, Zinner's photography, Chase's other music – suggests full-ish creative lives outside the band. You wonder exactly where there is left for them to go from here.