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Crush Songs is Karen O's soundtrack to a love crusade

Extroverts aren’t always putting it all out there, often instead using the force of a projected personality as a mask to hide vulnerabilities and to protect the perceived to be weaker aspects of the psyche. One senses on Karen O’s Crush Songs – a series of small vignettes of intense feeling she recorded between the years 2006 and 2010 – that these very vulnerabilities of the declared “Sex goddess of rock” (Spin, 2004 and 2005) and one of the “hottest women of rock” (Blender, 2006) spill out into a breathy silent space that give the impression of O sitting on her unmade bed, hungover and aching for the dude that turned his back on her at the party the night before.

She calls them Crush Songs, and in a small handwritten note first displayed on her website she suggests that when she was 27 she crushed a lot (underlines “a lot” for her own emphasis) and that at a point when she felt very unsure of love, she recorded these songs in private. They’re not odes to the men, though “King” is a passionate, sad little lament for the loss of Michael Jackson, they’re odes to ephemeral nature of a flickering passion that never got a chance to burst into flame, and the surreal state of sad/not sad the heart is abandoned to in its wake.

Crush Songs is an album of light, meandering, fugaciously sparse tunes that, like a crush, are usually over before they get a chance to cement themselves in the passionate embrace of a full song. They’re also windows into the workings of a musician who has earned her stripes, audaciously releasing her unmade, half-baked tracks onto the world as complete objects in themselves, with nothing more to be made of them. It’s discombobulating that this is a replete product, its lo-fi quality teeters on the precipice of unplugged and incomplete, regularly coming across as too simplistic, lacking in the deep-seated profundity these sorts of albums can project. Yet, as O says in her short note, “these songs are the soundtrack to an ever continuing love crusade. I hope they keep you company on yours”.

They’re her crush songs, “Love’s a fucking bitch. Do I really need another habit like you? I believe it’s gonna leave me blue,” she whisper sings on one of the best tracks of the album, “Rapt”. The longest song, “Beast” comes in at just 2:57 long and is a rambling cry of the lover who never had enough of love to justify the dubious pleasures of the depths of sadness at its demise. It’s followed immediately by one of the album’s shortest songs, “Comes the Night”, which sounds like a hollow cry in a large empty room. The songs are lonely in every sense. Isolated as opposed to substantial, as deficient as the mood they represent.

If Crush Songs is musically unsatisfying, it is emotionally complex. Karen O has flawlessly captured the ephemeral nature of the blue response to the extinguished crush – in many ways Crush Songs might be the perfect accompaniment to that night on Facebook when the person you had been in a private chat with for the last four days suddenly turns their status to “in a relationship”, and your stomach twists with awkwardness as you recognize your romantic misjudgment. She has a feel for that kind of connection, unfulfilled, and yet somehow managing to hurt enough to add to a series of cumulative pains. Like thinning, under-baked versions of “The Moon Song”, her Academy Award-nominated track, Karen O might have just found a way to articulate those weird electronic connections we make with people that we can’t substantiate but somehow matter as sure as they will be forgotten.

Crush Songs also signifies an unusual relationship with the concept album in its collection of short flirtations with the refusal of the satisfaction of realization. The vignettes are bound by the liquid misery borne by a lack of intensity. However, despite the sad nature of Crush Songs, Karen O has a lightness of touch that prevents the album reaching any sort of dark depths, again speaking to the fleeting nature of the sadness born of cursory puppy love. Perhaps O is onto something here, as we move closer to more complex passing connections, the experience perfectly articulated by Crush Songs is likely to occur more and more in our lives.

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