kareno

As softly intoned lyrics drift over the scratch of a guitar and the hum of a tape machine, it’s clear Karen O’s highly anticipated solo debut will feel anything but expected. Constructed from a series of bedroom recordings made around 2006 and 2007 – and finally finding their way to our ears through Julian Casablancas’ record label – ‘Crush Songs’ revolves around a series of infatuations that swept the New York chanteuse along during a period in her late twenties. And it strays away from the brash, angular, post-punk of her day job fronting Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, holding a tone more reminiscent of her recent, Oscar-nominated ‘Moon Song’, albeit with more startling unpolished edges.

With an unabashedly lo-fi sound, the album supports itself with little more than an acoustic guitar and the occasional assistance of a drum machine. Most of the tracks stretch little over sixty seconds in length, with only the soft undulation of ‘Beast’ daring to approach the three-minute mark. It’s a brevity that allows for deft movement between the forlorn pathways that love’s injustice lays; switching between the dispiriting fallout of breakup on tracks like ‘So Far’ and ‘Visits’, to the bittersweet desire for a love that’s just out of reach on ‘NYC Baby’ and ‘Body’. ‘Day Go By’, meanwhile, forms a sweet and somewhat bluesy ode that sees O hunger for love as she yearns: “I really need my fix ’cause you got me so sick/I know I’m burning for you.”

It’s O’s effortless vocals – highlighted by her spartan canvas – that allow her to breathe life into these laments with hypnotic pathos, and it sees her deliver some of the rawest lyrics of her career through the wistful confusion of tracks like ‘Native Korean Rock’ (“You can’t throw punches when you’re sitting on your hands”) and ‘Rapt’, which summarises the album’s entire concept with brutal simplicity: “Love’s a fucking bitch”. It’s a curt sentiment that distils the emotional tumult of a broken heart and draws strong comparison to the songwriting of Stephin Merritt.

These songs resonate with a sound of pain, loss and distant hope that never feels less than genuine, their brief running time saving O from wallowing too long in self pity, although it’s this same brevity that occasionally leaves songs to sound half sketched, ‘Sunset Sun’ and ‘Indian Summer’ feeling like rough demos that would benefit from further development or simply removal. And so there are those who might initially view ‘Crush Songs’ as experimental self-indulgence, but given the time and space to grow it flourishes into a poignant document of pure heartache.

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