opinion byMATTHEW M. F. MILLER
What exactly is the difference between a love song and a crush song? Apparently, duration. And while there are no definitive answers as to what constitutes a song per se, there’s a valid argument to be made that the title of Karen O’s solo debut, Crush Songs, is a misnomer for what’s really a collection of 15 lo-fi, sad-sack sketches of unrequited and unfulfilled promise – both sonically and lyrically. They aren’t really songs so much as unvarnished snippets, most of them less than two minutes in length. That said, it might be the perfect title given that crushes tend to be fleeting, unformed visions of what love could have been with someone for whom you have an irrational, one-sided desire. Let’s face it– crushes in and of themselves are sad and not very pretty, and in Karen O’s world they make for a frustrating listen, which is probably why her love songs will long outlast these infatuations.
While it’s not her best work, there’s a maddening load of promise in many of the tracks, which find O canoodling through the same sonic field as her Academy Award nominated “The Moon Song” featured on the Her soundtrack. “Rapt” – arguably the album’s highlight – sounds like the beginnings of a great Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, with O crooning, “Love is soft, love’s a fucking bitch. Do I really need another habit like you?” over loosely strummed acoustic guitar. It’s grabs the listener with its immediacy, but it never develops beyond a single idea, which is a shame given the complexity and strength of the lyrics. The same can be said about “Visits” – 90 seconds of drum machine and acoustic guitar that stops short of completeness, turning the simple phrase, “I don’t know” into an effective, memorable chorus with nothing else to support it. “NYC Baby” is 57 seconds long, and what’s there is great, with O nailing the long-distance longing: “Oh what a pity, he’s in New York City. Cuz my arms are empty and the phone it rings aplenty, and I’d rather have my baby much closer to me lately than he’s been.”
Variation is in short supply, which is the album’s chief flaw. There’s nothing inherently wrong with short songs, and there’s nothing wrong with an album’s length of repetitive sonic simplicity. “Day Go By” is a perfect little song, and dropped in the middle of an album with a larger scope it would be a standout. But everything here is short, strummy and sounds like the quiet, transition song that comes right before something bigger. “Body” is the only song that rises above quiet, and that’s only because Karen O randomly starts screaming about halfway through. When every song is short and recorded in the same minimalistic style, it often feels like just when you’re starting to get into a song, you’re immediately whisked away to another idea, to another moment that should have been spent finishing that first thought that now will never be finished. C+