She was probably inadvertently paraphrasing the age-old adage that attempting to write about music is like “dancing about architecture,” but the fact that translating songs from O and Danger Mouse’s ambitious and heavily orchestrated new album “Lux Prima” seemed easier than talking about it pointed up the unease the pair felt in the imposingly academic setting of a New York Times-sponsored “TimesTalk” at the darkened Florence Gould auditorium.
Indeed, recent talks in the series have ranged from political correspondents analyzing the Midterm elections to Lin-Manuel Miranda, Emily Blunt and Rob Marshall discussing “Mary Poppins Returns,” so it was an understandably fish-out-of-water setting for two versatile artists whose work has ranged into fashion and unorthodox musicals (O, whose day job is lead singer of alt-rock titans the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and producing U2 and Adele as well as leading the groups Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells (Danger Mouse, a.k.a. Brian Burton), but who began in irreverent, DIY circumstances far from such a chin-stroking setting. Still, with a friendly and knowledgeable moderator, Times senior music critic Jon Pareles, they rolled with it.
The duo have said that due to the steep challenges in recreating “Lux Prima” in a concert setting, they will not be touring behind this album: Instead, there will be “An Encounter with ‘Lux Prima,’” an “installation” that is described as “an immersive, communal listening experience soundtracked by the album, uniting their singular creative vision with groundbreaking audiovisual technologies” and will premiere in Los Angeles next month (except for the premiere night, it will not include a live performance). And while they staged a wild, Spike Jonze-directed sort of live video of “Woman” on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” earlier this week, performances will be rare.
But this evening began with one: three songs from the album performed by the duo, who were accompanied by guitarist and key “Lux Prima” contributor Sam Cohen.
The songs, rendered in big, lush, echo-drenched detail on the album (read Variety’s review here), took on a much more in-your-face quality in the dramatically stripped-down setting. O, wearing a sleek black suit with blue high-heeled boots, sang while Burton, clad in a soulman-style maroon suit with a black turtleneck, played electric piano and Cohen held down the rhythm with percussive chords on an amplified acoustic guitar. O messed up the first verse of the opening song, “Turn the Light,” not once but twice (laughing at herself each time), but quickly found her footing and delivered a strong version. While all three songs performed were from the album and sonically of a piece with it, in this setting the dramatic stylistic differences between the songs were much more pronounced, particularly with a less filtered version of what O later called her “split personality” styles of singing, the contrasts of which she characterized as ranging from a “vulnerable, heart on my sleeve” voice and the “warrior, bratty badass.” “Turn the Light” was sung in a third style, what one might call her innocent voice, a kind of plaintive almost child-like sing-song. The acoustic-guitar-based “Reveries,” on the other hand, was distant, sung in a dreamy, hazy tone that’s probably the vulnerable one she described. And she got her warrior on for the punky “Woman,” delivered in her rabble-rousing voice, with all its power and high-pitched whoops.
The pair then sat down to chat with Pareles. While they were clearly not completely at home in the setting, several nuggets emerged with details that weren’t discussed in the Times’ feature on the album from earlier this month. As they’ve said, the album began with a “drunk dial” to Burton from O around 10 years ago and continued in conversation amid the pair’s very busy schedules until they began working seriously on it a couple of years ago. Burton inadvertently revealed O’s warrior-like work ethic when he recalled, “She was pregnant at the time, and she said, ‘I think I might have some time to work on this project now,’” to laughter. “I like writing songs in the moment, when the person is right across from you,” he continued. “We went in with nothing, so we just jumped in and started doing it. We had no idea what it was going to [sound like] until we were halfway done.”
“Writing music is such a sub-to-un-conscious thing for me that it’s sometimes hard to talk about,” O added. “We didn’t really know each other, so a lot of it was getting to know each other. But I trusted Brian’s opinions right away because of all the big [artists] he’s worked with.”
The two also spoke of the freedom they felt working on the project, not least, as O noted in the Times interview, because there was no business pressure: the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have fulfilled their contractual obligations to Interscope Records, so “there was no expectation: Hardly anyone knew we were doing it, so it was all for the love of the craft.”
She also said that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are “alive and well” and still “best friends,” and noted that when they next work together it will be truly in a pressure-free “spirit of collaboration.”
And while both spoke about getting older — O, whose legendary stage presence was formerly characterized by what she called “unbridled exhibition[ism],” said her knee still hurt from the Colbert performance — did conclude by saying, “That punk spirit never leaves you.” And while “Lux Prima” is a very mature album with an orchestra and highly sophisticated musicianship, it provides a beautiful setting for two free creative spirits to jump around within.