Both on record and in concert, Karen O is a firework display. She’s prone to shiny, colorful wardrobe flourishes to work as a foil to her black leather aesthetic, much as her voice can oscillate quickly from tender fragility to violent, explosive outbursts — in her, the diametrically opposed find harmony. She’s equal parts tension and release, the kind of singer that prides herself on unpredictability, where the only sure thing is knowing that by the end of a song or a performance, something is going to blow up. It’s best to just stand back and take it all in.
In her work with Yeah Yeah Yeahs, her vital NYC indie rock outfit that have only offered up a single album this decade despite a return to touring over the last couple years, the sweetness and toughness are so intertwined that it’s difficult to separate her yearning from her ferociousness. Think of “Maps,” a signature song if there ever was one, and how vulnerable she is until the song erupts, her voice turning from a plea to a wail as guitarist Nick Zinner unveils a tidal wave of rushing guitars.
So when Karen O struck out as a solo artist, be it her 2009 original tunes for Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are or her 2014 offering Crush Songs, she shed a lot of what fans knew of her as a performer in favor of something far more intimate. Surely affected by the fact that one of these collections was literally for a family movie, Karen O embraced the lilting quality of her voice and removed any sense of danger from her recording persona. The productions were loose, with Crush Songs coming across more as a demo collection than a finished product, but all were buoyed by the bright flashes of beauty and a confessional honesty. She didn’t need to scream to have the listener believe her. The emotional resonance lights up the sky long after the words have faded.
But on Lux Prima, her first album collaboration with psych-pop musical auteur Danger Mouse, Karen O proves that after 20 years in the indie world, she still has new tricks up her sleeves. Any artist will tell you the goal is to never replicate themselves, but this album manages to splatter the familiar onto new canvases, expanding everything that listeners have known about the two artists into brave new realms. Nothing is left off the table, including the often personal nature of the songwriting, which explores Karen O’s newfound motherhood. It’s more than a new filter or lens to view artists that have spent the last couple of decades cultivating their sound. It’s a cannonball into the deep end of collaboration, and the pair let each other affect and be affected with striking generosity.
For Karen O’s part, she offers a song like “Woman” that veers closest to her punk roots, her shrieking declaration of womanhood a manifestation of the studded belts and fingerless gloves she often sports. It could easily be a Yeah Yeah Yeahs single if not for Danger Mouse’s subdued ’60s soul production, riding the snare on every beat and making the most of Karen O’s playful harmonizing vocals. The song is firmly a Karen O song and firmly a Danger Mouse song, finding both marrying tried-and-true formulas for something entirely new.
Other moments find the pair working in more solitary circumstances. Karen O reverts back to the lo-fi songwriter experiments of Crush Songs on the album’s penultimate track, “Reveries,” whose gentleness crafts a virtual lullaby that could easily be seen as an ode to her devotion to her recent child. Likewise, the album’s opening moments on the title track are rooted in Danger Mouse’s brilliance, establishing a theme for the record similar to his big gestures on the Daniele Luppi-assisted Rome record or the Sparklehorse collaboration Dark Night Of The Soul. On his more pop-oriented production work and collaborations, be it with The Black Keys, in Broken Bells or in Gnarls Barkley, it’s easy to forget how distinctly Danger Mouse can craft a mood, but here he is tasked to cast its initial spell, and it’s bewitchingly pristine.
But what makes both of these songs special is how their counterparts peak their heads in to eventually take over the songs. On “Reveries,” Karen O’s vocals dip away and leave Danger Mouse to provide a retro, buzzing synth solo that mirrors the tape hiss from the tune’s humble recording techniques, and on “Lux Prima,” it’s Karen O elbowing her way into the song’s center for a reflection on her newfound bond-for-life with her son, opening up with the declaration “there’s nobody but you.” There is no selflessness quite like being a parent, but the album makes the argument for the selflessness of being a collaborative duo, too.
Most of the music on Lux Prima finds a middle ground between Karen O’s dueling aesthetics. The soulful funk of “Turn The Light” is maybe the best example, a mirrorball two-step that sounds like nothing the singer has ever done before, aided by her producer’s longtime appreciation of the dance sounds of decades past. It’s not always for the best, though, as “Ministry” struggles with losing Karen O’s identity, tearing down her characteristic vocal tics and rebuilding her image into something a little more understated, and little less engaging. She still sounds great when playing it straight, but the song feels like it could be coming from anyone.
But Lux Prima still soars in spite of this. Danger Mouse has made a career joining forces with others, be it his breakout mashup of The Beatles and Jay-Z on The Grey Album or his recent years working with the likes of Adele, Portugal. The Man, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and almost always there’s an aspect of the artists getting outside their comfort zone and relying less on what worked in the past. For Karen O, this means hearing her as never before, finding her not completely relying on her larger-than-life personality and trading it for nuance and an ability to service the songs. She’s still burning intensely on Lux Prima. She’s just proving that this sustained luminance is as lovely as the bright flashes of her past.
Lux Prima is out on March 15 via BMG. Get it here.