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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Maps," fragile yet simultaneously rocking

Through lead singer Karen O, Yeah Yeah Yeahs find a balance between soft, heartfelt vocals and a powerful alt rock instrumental.

Today's Senior Year Soundtrack pick is definitely a bit harder-hitting than those of the past couple days, but it remains on the tender side of music to which I'm seemingly defaulting as I try to will myself through my final papers.

Two days ago, I mentioned how songs that sound happy can sometimes have a dark lyrical narrative. Those tracks tend to leave me questioning how I should feel about its music and its theme, and whether they can be reconciled. Today's selection makes me think of something similar in terms of contrast and its effects, but is more specifically tied to vocals.

We've all heard plenty of ballads with a relatively soft instrumental, but a powerful, high-energy vocal on top of it. In recent times, hits like Bruno Mars' "When I Was Your Man" and Adele's "Hello" fit that description. However, it's quite rare to hear a song that takes the reverse approach, combining a larger, more energetic instrumental with a softer vocal performance. It's definitely a tough approach to take, not only in terms of production and getting the lyrics to still cut through the instrumental, but also in attempting to capture the singer's tenderness among the harder and louder elements. When it's done successfully, though, the result is very moving and memorable, as in the case of "Maps" by Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a touching number that very simply speaks to the pain in trying to plead a love interest to stay.

"Maps" has a lot of energy in its instrumental, but it builds to get there. Its opening definitely grabs hold of the listener, with guitarist Nick Zinner constantly strumming a single D note. The longer that strumming goes, the greater anticipation it builds as the listener wonders where the note fits into the track. That question remains when Brian Chase's big, tom-heavy drum beat — quite reminiscent of something U2's Larry Mullen Jr. would play — comes in. At last, half a minute into the single's 3:34 runtime, Karen O's voice enters, and the key of G is established, in which the repeatedly strummed D is the fifth; the guitar note is stable, but it isn't quite home, and that feeling of not quite being home or settled pervades throughout the track.

The musical sense of unease bleeds into Karen O's lyrics, which are centered around her own internal struggles amid her relationship with then-boyfriend Angus Andrew, frontman of Liars (in fact, the song's title is suggested by some to be an acronym for "My Angus Please Stay"). She can feel a divide, especially considering her life as a touring musician, and in short phrases she tries to overcome that divide and stay united with Angus. "My kind's your kind," she sings, implying the two are a match because they are of the same ilk; she follows up that remark with "I'll stay the same," avowing her commitment even as she may be away from her lover. These lines are sung oh so gently above the guitar and drum backing, as if she is using little more than a tearful whisper — an impression definitely given off from her legitimate crying in the official video.

The softness and fragility of Karen O's performance emphasizes the emotional weight of the matter at hand, a weight which only becomes stronger when she sings the repeated chorus line, "Wait, they don't love you like I love you." This plea, simple and heartfelt, makes "Maps" what it is more than any other line, especially when sung above an energetic chorus instrumental and followed by an even more intense solo break. It's as if the instrumental represents everything Karen O is feeling beneath the surface that she can't let out, and that she restrains herself to only put forth her tender plea — a plea that through its succinctness is more moving than the grandest of lovestruck poetry.

All of "Maps" feels so real and understandable in its emotion, and that's why I'm enamored by the track so much. The soft vocals display a tempered response to a deep-set emotional turmoil embodied by the rocking instrumental. The song and its video also serves as reminders that the artists to whom we listen are people just like us, and they experience life and emotions as we do... and just like us, they too have to keep their emotions close at hand even as they fight their toughest internal battles.


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