Album Review: Karen O – Crush Songs

Rough drafts aren’t for sharing. An end product should be so astounding that seeing an early sketch detracts from the final reveal. A few close friends may be granted an early peek, but it’s for good measure, to assure the artist that they’re on the right path. When a project is ditched altogether, its rough drafts can be mesmerizing to view — as long as we remember the promised product doesn’t actually exist.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs frontwoman Karen O has taken that leap of faith anyway in releasing Crush Songs. Recorded in 2006 and 2007, when she was 27 years old, the 15-track album sees her caught in a daze after the fashionable Fever to Tell bowl cut and the shifting art punk of 2006’s Show Your Bones. She, like all of us, embarked on an “ever-continuing love crusade” where she “crushed a lot” and got crushed in the process, dating Spike Jonze and Liars’ Angus Andrew. The record is a slew of rough drafts, taking form in minute-long, lo-fi, acoustic songs where she struggles to make something of her mangled heart, much in the vein of her Grammy-nominated “The Moon Song” or the bonus acoustic takes on It’s Blitz!. For the first time since her Dave Sitek record leak, Karen O wants us to hear her errors, feel her fidgeting, and see her weak spots. She’s sharing her rough drafts, hoping we take notes.

Even though she’s nearing 30 at the time of these recordings, Karen O sings with the naivety of a child. “Growing up in these modern times ain’t easy,” she sings on “Native Korean Rock”, her own Thought Catalog piece on the woes of dating. It doles out advice like “You can’t throw punches, kid, when you’re sitting on your hands,” in hopes of exposing the self-realization that follows every heartbreak. She strips the padding from love’s exterior, a thick shell we’ve given it as we grow older in order to tell our children that “It’s more complicated than that,” because love’s metal jaws are too sharp, too real for us to try to define ourselves. Alone in her room, Karen O is trying to wrestle it. Love is much more an examination of ourselves than it is of the significant other, and facing the shadow of the human we aspire to be consumes us, making us dissect our own selves to become the person worthy of their heart. And yet a crush is an even more battered creature than a love. It’s so rooted in lust and imagined complexity that insanity seems viable when we wonder why we’ve been chasing that person for so long to begin with.

Naturally, it’s arduous to convey — even more so when the very core of your sketches is based around shaking confidence and deep self-doubt. Much like Jonze’s short films I’m Here and We Were Once a Fairytale, there’s a bitter pain that probes the longevity of love in the form of cutesy delivery. Her own short material barely hits with force equal to Jonze’s, even when the songs have time to develop — namely the few tracks that exceed two minutes — offering a look at what the album could have been.

It seems Karen O knows that. Crush Songs comes with personal drawings and handwritten lyrics — compensation for material that can’t pull the listener into her head on its own. Still, she steps out on defense on “Ooo”, confronting inevitable heartbreak pep talks with opening line “Don’t tell me they’re all the same” like a less strangling Kimya Dawson. She’s self-aware of her take on love (“Could all these songs seem all sung for a reason?”) before realizing it’s about starting with yourself (“There will always be someone else, so make it right for yourself”), giving the lyrical depth we’ve grown to expect from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. It’s difficult to recall much else that beckons lost hearts apart from “Rapt” and its wounded calls of “Do I really need another habit like you?” Each track hums with the unsurprising fizzle of relationships thanks to a sad fretboard, lonely cracking, and equally forlorn and seductive sides of her vocals.

This is an exercise in healing, and as such, it has rough patches. Right when Karen O’s songs are building a proper shape in their emotion, they cut off. She was either unsure how to end them or incapable of holding up the broken ends. Whatever the reason, it was too important to go back and reshape when putting out the record. In the moment, it’s striking, but it hurts the album upon revisits. At least it mirrors love in its striking, often defeatist attitude.

If anything, Crush Songs is a reminder of Karen O’s humanness, her bare bones songwriting process, and the mounds of tear-stained tissues she’s crumpled and climbed. It boldly aims to tighten the gap between today and tomorrow in a time where heartbreak makes a single week feel like eternity, but it’s ultimately memorable only to Karen O worshipers. There’s no bittersweet conclusion like the ringing chord on The Microphones’ “I Felt Your Shape” or memorable, depressing melodies like Elliott Smith’s self-titled. The closest she gets is the shattering howl and trembling vocals of “Body”. Rough drafts are still rough drafts, though, no matter whose signature is scrawled in the bottom corner. Karen O knows that, too. It’s just that this isn’t about helping in the eternal quest to define love. This is about highlighting the colors of her bruised heart, regardless of whether we can make them out.

Essential Tracks: “Body”, “Native Korean Rock”, and “Ooo”


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