One of my favourite things about music is that everyone approaches their work differently. There is no fail-safe set of rules for how to write a song or how to produce it. (I’m sure the Dr. Lukes of the world would disagree with me on that one, but we are not currently in the same dinner party circles so meh.) Some swear by the slickest, cleanest production. Others keep the rough edges on everything to retain the character of the song. But sometimes the feeling you created on an initial demo can be incredibly difficult to recreate in any other context. The emotion you somehow, in that split second, captured on those early takes can be completely lost when you re-record. That is the peculiar nature of the demo — something which is summed up perfectly on Crush Songs, Yeah Yeah Yeahs singer Karen O’s first official solo record.
Almost every review of this album will include the term “lo-fi.” Recorded largely in O’s New York apartment and consisting almost entirely of vocals and gentle acoustic guitar, Crush Songs could not be further removed from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Gone are the yelps, screams and electric bashing of O’s art-punk days, replaced by a relaxed, meandering approach. (Although things get slightly more aggressive on “Native Korean Rock.”) All you really get are the guts of the song: the words, the melody, the chords and perhaps most importantly of all, the emotion. Whilst this is a stylistic production choice, it also leaves very little room to hide, which only serves to highlight O’s strength as a songwriter. The fact that her songwriting can thrive in both solo work like this and in the context of something as guttural and eardrum-splitting as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is definitely impressive.
The sounds might seem thrown together, but they have a purpose: to express feelings that need to be dealt with as soon as they arise. The kind of emotions that come up like bile. The type that have had songwriters throughout history reaching for the notebook, guitar or Dictaphone. The ones that have been covered by a million pop songs, novels and indie movies. “Love stuff,” I guess. And Crush Songs covers a broad range of other emotions, good and bad, that come out of relationships.
“Body” could be about that old adage that you need to love yourself before you can love another, or about the idea that, in reality, monogamy is really, really difficult. “Ooo” is an ode to the “plenty more fish in the sea” argument, whilst “Rapt,” the album’s lead single, sums up the opposite quite nicely with the lines, “Love’s a fucking bitch/Do I really I need another habit like you?”
With the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, I have always loved O’s juxtaposition of tough, sexy “don’t fuck with me” songs (“Date with the Night”) with vulnerable, heartbreaking ones (“Maps”) and this contrast is on Crush Songs as well — songs like “Rapt,” “Day Go By” and “Comes the Night” manage to be lustful and sad at the same time. Her ability to combine a nursery rhyme-style vocal melody with dark lyrics (think the YYYs song “Cheated Hearts”) is alive and well, showcased here by “NYC Baby” and “So Far,” which recall a schoolyard jump-rope sing-along.
When I first read about Crush Songs, I mistakenly believed it to be a concept album about love. I don’t think I was far off. As in real-life romance, there are moments of suffering, hopelessness and frustration in Crush Songs, but there are also glimmers of hope — the idea that love may indeed exist, despite all evidence to the contrary. Crushes start out as that teenage phenomenon, life-affirming and cute, but as you wander into adulthood, they seem to end up more painful, harrowing and uncertain, especially if you have just come out of the relationship you thought would finally, maybe, maybe be the one that stuck. We all like to believe we are completely self-sufficient but at the end of it all, we’re all searching for a human connection, something to make it all feel a bit more worthwhile. Albums like Crush Songs, that manage to evoke these sentiments in a way that isn’t sickly, cringe-worthy or trite, are always my favourite kind.