Of the constellation of artists that rose from the mire of early aughts New York City — the Strokes, TV on the Radio, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem — Karen Orzolek, a.k.a. Karen O, is having the strangest and possibly the most edifying career. Her band, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, is known for reckless punk-rock abandon but also for a pop ballad and an EDM banger. Her solo career added new textures: 2014’s Crush Songs traded children’s choirs and big bands for drum machines and tape hiss, revealing the beating heart behind the music by stripping away production values. Her 2009 soundtrack for Spike Jonze’s live action Where the Wild Things Are adaptation proved that her high lonesome warble is arresting in any context, even drippy, peppy kids music. Orzolek sang at the Oscars, and she scored a co-write on a Beyoncé song. (Lemonade’s “Hold Up” repurposes the “Maps” refrain of “They don’t love you like I love you.”) Karen O’s career is a class in being impactful without being ever-present, and her triumphs illuminate the value of sticking to your guns.
To hear her tell it, Karen O’s latest musical adventure began over a decade ago with a drunk dial. As producer Danger Mouse began to shift from the hip-hop and soul underpinnings of his work in Gnarls Barkley and collaborations with Gorillaz to mainstream rock circles on a pair of albums he produced for Beck and the Black Keys in 2008, Karen rang him up in the middle of a night out overseas, saying, “Let’s work.” It’s a showbiz platitude, a mantra people repeat at the end of a conversation whether they intend to follow through on it or not. Karen clearly wasn’t kidding; this month’s Lux Prima, their debut joint album, recoups on the call from way back in 2008. It is, by turns, Karen O’s most concisely pop-oriented collection of songs to date and the most gauzy, relaxed Danger Mouse production since he worked with the late Sparklehorse singer-songwriter Mark Linkous and a consort of indie-rock legends on 2010’s Dark Night of the Soul. The success of Lux Prima hinges on how well the two musicians are able to make these two ends meet.
Lux Prima’s prerelease singles “Woman” and “Lux Prima” could’ve come from two different albums. “Woman” plants Karen O in the middle of a ’60s girl-group song, all propulsive drums, soulful backing vocals, and psych-pop ambience. The threat of a full-blown punk-rock chorus looms as the guitars ramp up after each verse, but the slow build never bubbles over. What catharsis “Woman” does deliver is served in the whooping, howling lead vocal (which could pass for the good twin of the ghoulish Fever to Tell punk blues cut “Man”) and a lyric about self-defense and self-sufficiency. If “Woman” is a word about defeating repression through resilience, “Lux Prima” is its mirror image, a love song about the (numbing) comforts of the familiar. The latter’s tools are space, intriguing synth textures, and abstract imagery. Like “Woman,” there’s a clever inversion happening. “Lux Prima” reads like a song about companionship, but it sounds like shuffling through choice Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream cuts in a New Age playlist.
Elsewhere, Lux Prima stops short of the straight-up pop moves of “Woman” and the title track’s prog-rock gestures. The choice makes sense. Pile on a few more tracks like the former, and the album suddenly leans too close to the meat-and-potatoes throwback pop-rock treatments Danger Mouse gives bands like the Black Keys. Too much of the latter’s rippling synths and wandering grooves would get people fussing about where the songs are. Lux Prima settles down carefully between the two poles but struggles to shake the sense that the two artists are playing too safely. “Drown” and “Ministry” mix moody folk and offbeat arrangements as deftly as Sea Change–era Beck gems like “Paper Tiger.” “Turn the Light” is bare-bones disco; “Redeemer” and “Leopard’s Tongue” are sleek, intriguingly spacious rock tunes you could easily tack onto the track list of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs album Mosquito without missing a beat.
Karen O has been making bare-bones deconstructions of punk-rock tunes for almost 20 years. The success of those kinds of songs in this batch is a function of her mastery of the form. It also makes you wonder what the album could’ve been if the two collaborators pushed beyond their respective comfort zones. What if they followed the latent country-rock vibes of “Drown” to their logical conclusion? What if there were more gospel choirs? What if the whole thing sounded like the candy-sweet doo-wop bridge at the end of “Woman”? Lux Prima is never less than lush, pretty, and upbeat. That also means it is perhaps best received as background music. There’s value in that, but it is jarring to hear the singer who gave us exhilarating performances in “Zero” and “Y Control” and even “All Is Love” slip so cozily into the margins.