Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame is a pop mongrel of the 21st century whose genre-spanning career is a monument to chameleonic adaptation and a commitment to being loud, brash, and in-your-face. Karen O fronted the band which would participate in the garage rock revival before moving into punk-inflected electropop, garnering critical acclaim along the way from mainstream and alternative press. It’s a shame that, with Karen O’s debut solo album, Crush Songs, all colour, vitality, and idiosyncratic fun has been wiped clean from the slate.
The album begins as it means to go on – Karen O sings mournfully over the limp strumming of her guitar accompaniment, and the world becomes grey. Lyrics like “Love is soft / Love’s a fucking bitch,” reveal the candid, frustrated motivations behind the album, yet the songs sound like demos and the lyrics read like back-of-hand scrawlings, or toilet wall graffiti. This is likely intentional to befit the lo-fi aesthetic O reaches for, a tribute to indie rock pre-Yeah Yeah Yeahs and their contemporaries. To give O credit, the adoption of this aesthetic provides the album with a rawness that suits it, but it doesn’t exonerate it from its other ills. Those who dislike tinny production would find this particularly unpalatable.
Crush Songs is, above all, a minimalist album. The guitar is spidery and thin, O’s sole companion for the majority of the record. O also multitracks her vocals, providing additional noise to fill in empty space. This sparse style is a departure from The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ 2013 album, Mosquito, which was overladen with heavy-handed production, but the pendulum has swung too far the other way. The method of composition on Crush Songs calls attention to the individual parts which are uninteresting, and not much better when combined as a whole. On the guitar, notes are sometimes strummed in an arrhythmic style, oftentimes with little progression.
O’s vocal style on this album resembles that of some ambient and shoegaze artists, featuring a sound that fades in-and-out, switching between using the voice to sing audible lyrics and as another part of the instrumental makeup. The songs are short, generally around one or two minutes, and contain few opportunities to allow a mood to be established or for a pattern to emerge. It would be impressive if a listener could hear the album and recall any of it in the aftermath. Perhaps this is not the point, but the album fails to inspire or provoke emotion even during its playtime, rendering the whole thing a tedious chore.
The most notable moment of the album occurs ten tracks in on Body, where O departs from monotony and shrieks into the microphone. This doesn’t represent a breakthrough in musicality, nor the introduction of anything resembling a hook, but it does at least remind the listener that there is some life, some variance, in this otherwise flatlining album.
Perhaps Crush Songs represents something more for Karen O than another hit album, or another opportunity to let loose on tour. Perhaps some listeners will enjoy the intentionally shambolic presentation and O’s frank, vulnerable take on relationships. On the whole, however, Crush Songs mainly inspires tiredness and deep apathy. It is aural Ambien, only useful for sleepless nights - should you remember that it even exists.