There was a real danger when combining Karen O and Danger Mouse that things could get too theatrical. O, as the indelible lead singer of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs established an unparalleled style, from her shrieking vocals to her outre stage presence, that none of her peers from the New York scene of the aughties could replicate. And Danger Mouse, in his collaborations with Cee-Lo Green (Gnarls Barkley) and James Mercer (Broken Bells) as well as his production work with the Black Keys, Beck, and Adele, has created a larger-than-life, distinct sound. All that power combined in one project could easily have become a child’s science project; a baking soda volcano that erupts with one glorious rush and is never quite as impressive the second time.
But, on Lux Prima, they manage to avoid that trap by looking to two things bigger than themselves, in both their lyrics and music: outer space and the vastness of their combined musical influences. Together, on the 9-minute title track that starts the album, they launch into a cinematic version of outer space that’s more in the vein of Moon than 2001, and more Tame Impala than Pink Floyd, but that owes a debt to all of these. Under that experimental umbrella, O and Danger Mouse toy with the Phil Spector girl group/wall of sound influence (you can hear Spector’s distinct percussive style on “Ministry” and “Woman”), a touch of Georgio Moroder can be detected in the backing vocals and bass on “Turn the Light,” and a whole vibe lifted and slightly softened up with some organ from Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane on “Leopard’s Tongue.”
For O, the album allows her to explore her own transition: from the ultimate hipster party girl in her 20s to a woman and a mother in her 40s whose genre has dimmed in popularity and cultural relevance. O had a baby with her husband, director Barnaby Clay, in 2015 — the same year she played a Lou Reed track at his posthumous Rock Hall of Fame induction. Age and motherhood doesn’t always mean O presents as vulnerable. On “Woman,” between coos for acceptance (“Won’t you come be my friend?”), O changes the tone in the chorus and reaches for some of her wilder rock tricks as she screams, “I’m a woman” to a relentless, strident drum beat and monster guitars. And on “Redeemer,” O puts the patriarchy in its place with the chorus: “You’re not coming for me / I’m coming for you.”
But the numerous softer moments on the album, “Drown” and “Reveries,” are far from a reinvention for O. Instead, they remind us of her breakthrough hit, the way she won the hearts of the mainstream, with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs first (and biggest) hit single, the sad love song “Maps,” which would inspire two other giant pop hits with Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Beyoncé’s “Hold Up.”
So, is rock music a young person’s game? O seems to want to explore other options these days. Lux Prima shows she’s got the range, but it leaves open-ended so many unanswered questions about ageism for women in music. Must we calm it down, go experimental, or be put out to pasture because we get older and/or become mothers? O offers no resolutions but does take a beautiful trip through the galaxy.