Why We Still Need Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ ‘It’s Blitz!’ 10 Years Later
In 2009, the United States was in poor shape.The country was far past 9/11, but barely post-George W. Bush. For eight years, the United States and the entire world had suffered under an administration addicted to war and lies. Rock fans had started the first decade of the century meeting in the bathroom, and ended it in the same bathroom, crying alone.
The dream of the 00s was over and a new dream for twenty teens was dearly needed. But in 2009, we had two reasons to be hopeful: optimism was on the recovery thanks to a new young president, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs were back with a new record, It’s Blitz!.
“It’s Blitz! came after our extensive Show Your Bones touring cycle, but more precisely after we recorded our Is Is EP,” YYYs drummer Brian Chase told me over email. “We kind of needed it, too, in some ways to cleanse our palettes after Show Your Bones; to do something fast and fresh to reset and recharge.”
When It’s Blitz! was released in March of 2009, fresh it certainly felt and recharge us it did. It was a superb reinvention of the band; cleaner than their past releases without being sterile, it still retained the dark, dirty elements that had made their previous records so heavily hypnotizing and chaotically cathartic.
My now defunct punk group the Thermals had the immense pleasure of supporting Yeah Yeah Yeahs at Seattle’s Showbox Theater in 2003, when they had just released their beautifully blistered debut LP Fever to Tell. Back then, I still had a day job, doing early morning shifts at the original Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Southeast Division street in pre-Portlandia Portland, Oregon.
The shop opened at 6 a.m.; we openers arrived around 5:30. Some days we rolled out of bed and sleep-walked to work in the rainy pre-dawn gloom. Other days we just floated on down the street from whatever house party had kept us awake all night. At 6 on the dot we turned on the bright lights and welcomed in the hordes of fleece-clad zombies. Caffeine junkies lined up from dawn ‘til dusk; the rush of customers never seemed to dissipate. They threw us all in a trench and stuck a $5,000 La Marzocco espresso machine on top. We brave baristas got through it all with our shared love of espresso double shots and indie rock.
There was an LP player at Stumptown and for a few years it seemed to be playing only records from NYC: the Strokes, Interpol, and, of course, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Fever to Tell. Fever may not have been as polished as the output of YYY’s peers, but was absolutely more passionate, and band was much more than the sum of its jagged parts: Nick Zinner’s extrinsic guitarscapes, Brian Chase’s joyously untethered rhythms, Karen O’s unavoidably engaging duality. Her lyrics, and the songs themselves, were sultry yet sensitive, sometimes from one breath to the next. They were brash, fun and relatable; cool without being cold. 2003 was the year and my friends and I grew to love Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and 2009 was when we needed them back more than ever. Enter It’s Blitz!.
“Zero,” the opening track on the album, begins with a pulsating, pleasantly punishing synth. “Shake it like a ladder to the sun/Makes me feel like a madman on the run” are the first lyrics we hear from Karen O, her words as exuberantly paranoid as the track itself. The band sounds like a group escaping the horrors of the past instead of happily careening into what we all hoped would be a cautiously brave new world.
Art reflects the time in which it was made as much as it soundtracks the era into which it is released: It’s Blitz! is a true cusp record, and “Zero” fittingly depicts O’s anxieties about the past as she fearlessly guides us to a new future. Blankets of beat and waves of keys layer to crush bruised memory, and we are now joined in a sonic celebration to usher in the age of Obama. “Your Zero” could just as easily be “Year Zero.” History is a distant nightmare. The world, and you yourself, will now restart.
Which is not to say the foul sins of the recent past will be forgotten, or that prior transgressions will not go unpunished. YYYs continue their new mission statement on “Heads Will Roll”: “Off with your head/Dance ’til you’re dead.” The guilty will be dealt with, the innocent will be protected, and then we are gonna fuckin’ dance.
Because It’s Blitz! is dance music. Sure, you could bop your head to Show Your Bones, but Blitz had an undeniable agenda to make you really shake your ass. All of us making records in 2008 knew that the tide may have been about to turn our way, but we also may have been headed for four or eight more years of neo-fascism. We had to prepare ourselves for sweet victory or bitter defeat. Either way, we were gonna get down, and hard. Brian Chase explains via email:
I think Karen was feeling making a studio album that was leaning toward bringing in other sonic elements to our sound. Both our previous two LPs were heavy on the ‘rock’ side of things, so working more extensively with keyboards and electronics opened up some new possibilities. It was cool to discover those sounds and how they fit in with the band. The whole point was to bring out the most in the songwriting. In ‘Zero,’ the electronic dance pulse of the synth adapted well into the edginess of our rock driven groove.
On It’s Blitz!, Yeah Yeah Yeahs don’t take too much time or too many tracks to slow down and remind us of why we fell in love with them in the first place. “Soft Shock” is at once both soft and shocking, like YYYs themselves. The track continues with the album’s jarringly low synths — a great surrogate for a bass player — but O’s smooth voice and lyrics (“Catch your shut eyes in your room/In my room”) are quite soothing.
The drums feel less processed than in the first two tracks: Brian Chase as flesh and blood. The guitars slither in opposing druggy directions like millipedes under blacklights: Nick Zinner as foreign disaffection. Gorgeous alienation is a theme in all of the band’s records, as though O, Chase and Zinner are humans born on earth but feel like they belong to a different planet’s culture, castaways from another galaxy. The fact that there are so many of us in the world who feel the same way is the reason why we listen to them.
As they had on all of their previous releases, YYY’s enlisted TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek as a producer on It’s Blitz!. I know from experience that when you find a producer you can trust in the studio, you tend to stick with them. I asked Chase if Sitek comforted and/or challenged the band in any ways that kept them returning to work with him. Chase told me: “(Sitek) is a super trusted friend and musician, we love him dearly. He can also be good with us as individuals, and sometimes when the studio process gets tough or stagnant, Dave’s energy can cut right through it.”
Energy is the a key word here. As the album continues, the band’s ferocity endures. “Dull Life” is anything but dull. Cymbals smash. Guitars crash. “Iron Heart/Iron Bars/Iron Heart/Everything.” “Dragon Queen” is intensely elegant; although musically a slow burn, it’s lyrically high af: “My mouth is blowing right off/I’m so gone/Incoming, out clubbing/ Not loving/Slow your body down.” It’s Blitz! did what all great heavy alternative records do: It cleansed us of the drab past and spiritedly encouraged us to rage into the future.
However, the standout tracks on It’s Blitz! — like on Yeah Yeah Yeahs previous work — are the softer, gentler songs. When Fever to Tell first hit the indie world like an electric shock, it was the harder numbers like “Tick” and “Black Tongue” that kept us up all night and made us late for work in the morning. But as we all spent more time with the record, a consensus became clear: Our agreed upon favorite track was “Maps.”
Zinner’s guitars and Chase’s drums combined to form a glowing cascade of icicle lights and O sounded at her sweetest and most sincere when she pleaded with us to wait. At the end of every date with the night, “Maps” gently tucked us into bed as we prayed we would wake the next day.
Similarly, the ballads on It’s Blitz! stand out today as strongly as they did 10 years ago. “Skeletons” is a skeleton itself, a beautifully sorrowful shell of loss and longing. “Love my name/Love left dry/Frost or flame/Skeleton me.” The instrumentation echoes the lyrics, all icy synths and bare bones drums. The song hardly exists, and is yet all-encompassing. “Love, don’t cry.” But how could we not?
The absolute peak of the album, and maybe YYYs’ career so far, is “Runaway.” The piano tranquil but tense. The drums tight and terse. The strings melancholy as they yearn to leave the earth, perhaps this time for good. The voice beyond heartbreak: “I was feeling sad/Can’t help looking back/Highways flew by/Run, run, run away/No sense of time/Want you to stay/Want keep you inside.”
If that didn’t sum up how we were feeling about the disappointing (to say the least) ruin of the aughts, what could? Yeah Yeah Yeahs have always been adept at slicing and dicing post-punk until neither post nor punk is left. But when they recline and open themselves to us, they shred our hearts as if to expertly consume us. It’s why we truly love them, and how they will always keep us inside.
In 2019, to say the country is in poor shape would be the understatement of the young but rapidly aging millennium. In just over two years, it seems Donald Trump has done more damage to the U.S. than George W. Bush did in eight. It’s been enough to make even the staunchest liberals pine for Bush’s folksy idiocy in the face of Trump’s cruel, blustering madness.
It’s Blitz! welcomed us into and escorted us through what may have been the height of American civilization for some. It may have not been a defectless epoch, but it might have been as good as it was gonna get; such great heights we may never see again. We saw the peak, and for the rest of our lives we’ll remember where we were and how good we really had it. Did we live? Did we love? Did we dance? Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.
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