For over a decade now, we’ve gotten to know Karen O as the snarling, glamorous, flamboyant Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman. Clearly drawing on influences ranging from Mick Jagger to Joe Strummer, it’s been her on-stage style that’s helped create a modern rock staple, but we’ve also seen her mellower, more nuanced side on songs like “Maps” and her Oscar-nominated “Moon Song” from the “Her” soundtrack.
On Crush Songs, we’re treated to the latter – a series of lo-fi songs she recorded in her home (her bedroom to be specific) between 2006 and 2007. The entire album is just a girl and her guitar, and as the title suggests, every song strips away the layers that Karen O has built over the years, and leaves us with a sometimes broken-hearted, sometimes lonely girl who’s singing – you guessed it – about her crushes.
Of Crush Songs’ fifteen tracks, none register as three minute pop songs. In fact, most of them barely break the two-minute mark. While not markedly a concept album, the collection is made to feel like a series of earnest diary entries, all hastily scrawled inside of an emotional moment. And in that respect, Crush Songs is an insight we so rarely get; a glimpse at a woman – vulnerable and honest – shaking away the peacocking persona we’re so used to and exposing her core.
On the album’s second track and first single “Rapt” (1:49), Karen O writes of a seemingly toxic love gone-awry. While the lyrics flirt between the hope of a blossoming romance “Bright as a star/Be the light/Strobing down on me”, she lets us crash down to earth with her “Love is soft/Love’s a fucking bitch”. So while her guitar strums ever so gently, the reminder of who she is (and has always been) remains.
And while the lovelorn teen persona gets a workout, the album’s not all sadness and heartbreak. The story here is that Karen O is who she is because of these experiences, which is why tracks like “Body” seem to fit into the overall experience. “If you love somebody, anybody / There will always be someone else / So make it right for yourself” speaks of moving past the album’s ‘lost without him’ sentiment – a fitting lesson.
Even the album’s sole cover (The Doors’ “Indian Summer”) has been given new meaning. The album’s haunting, lonely, reverb-tinged sound bleeds throughout Jim Morrison’s lyrics, blending it into her own.
It’s easy to mistake Crush Songs for a lot of things – self-indulgent; unfinished; lazy – but if Karen O has proven anything over her career, it’s that she does nothing half-assed. From its confessional lyrics to a sound that’s reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens or Neutral Milk Hotel, Crush Songs could have been a disaster in almost anyone else’s hands, but in Karen O’s, it’s a carefully-crafted, bittersweet ode to heartbreak.
Essential Tracks: ”Rapt”, “Comes the Night”, and “Body”