Karen O and Julian Casablancas Run From the Spotlight on Their New Albums

Photo: Loren Wahl

Karen O has always seemed a little shy. This might be a strange thing to say about a performer who is known for gargling like a demon, wearing things that Vegas-era Elvis would have considered too spangly, and spitting so much beer at her audience that at those early Yeah Yeah Yeah shows there ought to have been some kind of Sea World–esque SPLASH ZONE signs warning the first couple of rows. But even then it was true. What’s always made Karen O such a thrilling front person to watch is this sense that you are witnessing right before your eyes some kind of Linda Blair–style transformation from girl to beast; she blurts out lines wickedly, gleefully (“You look like SHIT!”), as though she herself can hardly believe she is saying them.

But on her first solo album, the muted, lo-fi Crush Songs — as well as the intimate shows she’s been playing to support it — this shyness is a little easier to believe. When I saw her play the second in a series of three small shows last week at the McKittrick Hotel (the home of Sleep No More), it felt like the debut performance of a reclusive, self-recorded bedroom pop artist, albeit one with a better wardrobe, higher budget, and a hell of a lot more charisma than your average Bandcamp hobbyist. The first part of her set was almost impossibly quiet: As she wrapped up the minute-long lullaby “NYC Baby” (“I’d rather have my baby so much closer than he’s been”), she froze, closed her eyes, and repeated the last syllable in a kind of manual fade out (“been … been … b e e n … ”), the word evaporating a little more each time she said it. She lulled the room into such an enraptured hush that even the world’s most benevolent heckler (“Amazing! Beautiful!”) garnered death stares from other people in the audience. And yet, maybe shy is the wrong word here; with each song she played, it became clearer what a terrific amount of presence and confidence is required to snake-charm an audience into hanging on every whisper. Onstage, it’s apparent even in the negative space: Karen O is a star.

Crush Songs comes at an interesting junction in Karen’s stardom, and in the larger tale of the early aughts New York City rock boom. This year has seen, arguably, Karen O’s most conventional brush with fame: After being nominated for her “Moon Song” from Spike Jonze’s Her, she performed for 43 million viewers at the Oscars. If ever there were a time for her to catapult to solo stardom, it’s now — except that in every single way, Crush Songs is the opposite of the album you make when you want to catapult to solo stardom. It’s strange, quiet, and almost aggressively minor. It reminds me of an early Beat Happening record, or the demos of prolific New York indie-popper Frankie Cosmos. It’s also quite old: Karen made these home recordings almost 8 years ago, around the time of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ second album Show Your Bones. (“When I was 27 I crushed a lot,” she explains. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever fall in love again. These songs were written + recorded in private around this time.”) Every artistic decision she’s made around Crush Songs has been radically small; she even played a couple of shows in fans’ living rooms. It’s hard not to take all of this as a response to the burdens of fame — not so much a retreat from it as a controlled and largely successful attempt to shrink the aperture of the spotlight.

Julian Casablancas’s new album with the Voidz, Tyranny, also strikes me as a reaction to the spotlight, or maybe just an attempt to shatter it altogether. (If he ever decides to play it in fans’ living rooms, I hope to God those people have homeowners’ insurance.) The Strokes front man has also recently experienced a potential-comeback springboard, having sung lead vocals on the Daft Punk single “Instant Crush” from their massive 2013 album Random Access Memories. But Tyranny seems almost tailor-made to alienate anyone who might have become newly interested in Casablancas after hearing him on the Daft Punk record. “Instant Crush” was pure, easy-listening sheen; Tyranny is boldly dissonant and ugly-on-purpose, a scuzzy junk heap of malfunctioning electronics with occasional Thin Lizzy riffs shooting out at odd angles. It’s an angry record, a sustained lashing out at something — technology? Capitalism? Song structure? “Tyranny has come in many forms throughout history,” Casablancas (sort of) explains in the press materials. “Now, the good of business is put above anything else, as corporations have become the new ruling body. Most decisions seem to be made like ones of a medieval king: whatever makes profit while ignoring and repressing the truth about whatever suffering it may cause (like pop music, for that matter).” Tyranny seems to have a statement to make, but in the end it just comes off as inscrutable and confused; it often sounds to me like a wino trying to start a bar fight with a garbage disposal. It makes Metal Machine Music feel conceptually elegant.

Tyranny and Crush Songs are sonic opposites, but taken together they form a coherent elegy for an era. Only about a decade later, it’s hard to imagine the arc of a “New York buzz band” ever happening again as it did for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs or the Strokes (or Interpol or TV on the Radio, both of whom have new albums this fall). As the major label system continues its slow collapse, the days of breathlessly hyped downtown club shows turning into high-profile four-album deals seem to be over — although maybe O and Casablancas’s latest albums give us the hint that this was never the Cinderella story it was cracked up to be. “You’re starting again from scratch,” Casablancas recently told the New York Times, “but everyone’s analyzing your every move. [You’re only] allowed to make mistakes the first time around.” Both Tyranny and Crush Songs seem to be grappling with the aftershocks of a certain kind of indie fame that doesn’t exist in quite the same way anymore. Even though the Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs both went on to make great records, they were also bands haunted by the mythology of their lo-fi origins — the nagging refrains of “you had to be there.” With these new projects, it’s hard not to feel like O and Casablancas are attempting to re-create that Edenic moment of the “promising” demo, the tiny but packed club show, the moment right before everybody knew their names.

And yet, even in their relative failures, I’ll still take the artistic risks of Crush Songs and (yes, even) Tyranny over the latest album from Interpol, the snoozy, recently released El Pintor. To unadventurous ears, it’s probably the most listenable of the bunch, but it also seems too safe — springing from a fear of changing up the formula on which the band made its name. Maybe, of any of the early aughts New York rock bands, Interpol were the most comfortable with the bright lights all along.