Karen O began her three-night run at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery with an intimate, vulnerable performance of her recent solo album, Crush Songs.
Flanked by L.A.’s Moses Sumney and N.Y.C.’s Holly Miranda on guitars, she was calm and ethereal in a shimmering blue dress, her hair down and her makeup simple. It wasn’t the Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs; no smeared lipstick, no glittery cape, no signature shriek.
Full of scratchy, unpolished musings scarcely longer than two minutes, Crush Songs feels more like a collection of demos than it does an LP. Maybe not even demos; maybe a series of voicemails she left someone at midnight.
“I crushed a lot when I was 27,” she writes in the liner notes, which also feature her personal drawings. “I never thought I’d love again. These songs were written and recorded in private during that time.”
Crush Songs isn’t different because it’s emotionally raw. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs can write a stirring song, too. The video for their biggest smash, “Maps,” shows Karen O singing through what she later explained were very real tears because her then boyfriend, for whom the song is written, was three hours late to the shoot and she was about to leave for tour.
But these songs are nothing like “Maps.” If there’s a YYYs equivalent, perhaps it’s Fever to Tell’s simple, melancholy “Modern Romance,” but even that sounds slick compared to anything on Crush Songs.
Her live performance of these lovelorn songs—what she calls “the soundtrack to what was an ever continuing love crusade” from 2006-2010—feels like we’ve been invited into her bedroom. We’re not just listening to songs, we’re being entrusted with them. “Caught in a world of pain / Who will stop the world?” she sings softly during the track “Visits.” “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t hold / any, any other soul.”
It wasn’t all heartbreak. There’s a childlike sweetness to “King,” an ode to Michael Jackson. “With his single sparkling glove / he blows us kisses from above,” she sang with a smile, donning a sparkling glove of her own and blowing kisses at the audience. “Is he walking on the moon? / I hope I don’t find out too soon.”
It’s a special thing to see an artist in such a different light than we’ve come to know her, but it’s also difficult to listen to the songs and not wonder if some of them might sound better with more behind them. Some of the finest moments in the evening came when Sumney and Miranda played alongside Karen O. Still, Crush Songs is a haunting album and its creator delivers an even more haunting performance.
Karen O’s Hollywood Forever residency continues tonight.