The Yeah Yeah Yeahs practically made their name on the strength of their live performances at the beginning of this decade – or, I should say, the performance, singular, of front-woman Karen O, a veritable force of nature; the sort of musician who’ll go from screaming herself hoarse and throwing cups of beer over her guitarist to delivering the gentlest of ballads, as with Maps, the (admittedly uncharacteristic) single from debut album Fever to Tell which cemented the reputation of the band as being about a great deal more than just the New York hipster scene.
So it is with heavy heart that I must report that since the release of their third album, It’s Blitz, released in April of this year, something has changed. At the O2 Academy, there is very definitely a missing spark from the band’s on-stage antics. O still makes a spectacular entrance, in a sort of female Nosferatu-esque outfit seemingly composed largely of bright print fabric and extra limbs, and she twirls around the stage with gusto, creating the atmosphere of visual spectacle to which fans have become accustomed, but aurally, the performance falls rather flat.
Maybe this has something to do with the work ethic of the band as a collective whole, rather than – as it is often tempting to think of them – as O and some backing musicians. When your entire show rests solely on one person’s shoulders, standards must surely, eventually, begin to slip. Watching guitarist Nick Ziner and drummer Brian Chase, all I could think of was that old Spitting Image routine. Puppet Margaret Thatcher and her puppet cabinet are seated in a restaurant, and a waiter comes to their table. “What would you like, madam?” he asks. “I’ll have the steak,” replies the Iron Lady. “And the vegetables?” “Oh yes, they’ll have the same.” I even started mentally playing the “How long can you speak only in clichés?” game. Ziner, dressed all in black, literally fades in the background, while O hogs the spotlight.
These antics were brought to a halt, however, after cliché No. 11, “Be careful what you wish for,” reminded me of a valuable lesson. After half a dozen songs, O was yet to say a word to the audience. “My,” I thought, “this is certainly a bit of a rum deal. She’s not talking at all.” When she finally caught her breath and leaned into the microphone, the natural assumption was that something pretty special might issue forth.
“Can I get something off my chest?” she began. “We fucking love you, Glasgow!!” Like, wow. Big deal.
And this is all very fine – really, not saying much is a pretty minor quibble – because as I mentioned, they still look great. But evidently, in putting so much thought into quite how large the giant, spinning-on-an-axis eyeball hovering above the stage should be, they’ve neglected to give much consideration to how they’ll sound. Well, this is how they sound: exactly like they do on their records.
Now, this isn’t always something I object to. If I go and see SuBo perform in some cavernous warehouse of a conference arena, I want her to sound exactly like she does when she sings I Dreamed a Dream on the album. But with a band like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, one expects something more. The kinetic energy they brought to live shows in days of yore – the sense that at any moment, O might be about to throw her shoes at you – isn’t here anymore, and what’s left is a perfectly adequate - albeit rather flat – series of old and new songs which even look as if they could be being mimed, given O’s penchant for swooping capes across her face all the time, thereby hiding her mouth.
There’s a very good acoustic version of Maps, a quite-good rendition of Gold Lion, opening track of album number two, Show Your Bones, and a frankly lacklustre Cheating Hearts, whose chorus line, “Sometimes I think I’m bigger than the sound”, has a sad hint of irony about it when O quite so manifestly doesn’t give a shit about the sound; only the sight.