Eleven years removed from their manic, sizzling debut, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have yet to come close to recapturing that initial burst of ragged energy. Not that they’ve ever really tried, settling for riffs on a subdued version of their initial formula on two marginally successful, decidedly unambitious follow-ups. The long periods of downtime between these albums only furthered the impression of an act running on the fumes of a one-shot legacy, a suspicion that’s defied by Mosquito, a messy, forceful expression of creative restlessness. It may not have the same spark of juvenile gaucherie that made Fever to Tell so effective, and it may contain some of the worst songs the band has ever recorded, but it at least achieves that unevenness through serious, unorthodox means.
This doesn’t exactly excuse the desolate crappiness of Mosquito’s worst songs, which are pitched at a hysterical level of miscalculation. The title track, a blustery collusion of tribal drums and singer Karen O’s familiar bird-call shrieks, is a dumb, sprawling muddle, all empty energy and half-assed imagery. Less disastrous are moderate failures like “Buried Alive,” which draws out some lame verses from rapper Dr. Octagon, a move that recalls Blondie’s stilted use of Fab 5 Freddy on “Rapture.” As a concept, rock bands bringing in special-guest rappers to supplement their sound hasn’t had the most fruitful history, and the attempt here is equally ill-advised, but something about this misstep fits with the album’s jaggedly misshapen quality, the way it draws its weirdness from an unlikely variety of sources.
These missteps are at least constructive, since they reach back to the frenzied experimentation that was originally found at the band’s core. The neo-punk bona fides touted in their early days weren’t just rooted in rough-hewn notions of energy, speed, and attitude, but in a sneering refusal to rein in their more feral elements, from their lead singer’s heaving sexuality to the wooly profusion of jagged guitar lines. Before the success of “Maps” pushed them off course, their music was rough, loud, and often piercingly stupid, with songs exploited as canvases on which to make large, rambling messes.
That spirit is alive again on tracks like opener “Sacrilege,” an unlikely mash-up of styles that finally blossoms with the inclusion of a full-on gospel choir, the song’s goofy maximalism making up for the silliness of this gesture. “Subway,” which exploits the inherent musically of New York’s underground, feels like its opposite, surprisingly calm and collected, drawing its energy from one familiar thump-thump sound effect. Divided between these sorts of small successes and outright failures, Mosquito is nowhere near a coherent album, which at this stage in the band’s career feels like a refreshing return to form.