Karen O and Danger Mouse’s ‘Lux Prima’
Lux Prima opens with a tremulous wash of synths – a stately series of minor, major seventh and augmented chords. There is an instant otherworldly atmosphere, a feeling enhanced by an angelic soprano voice swooping wordlessly, as if singing from the beyond. Drums and bass join in next, adding a touch of majesty to the ethereal mood, and hushed female voices intone, “Faithful sunshine”. In a few minutes, everyday reality melts away and time moves slower as you drift.
Suddenly, the music shrinks, becoming small and intimate, as if the song itself is drawing breath. The focus narrows to Karen O as she begins to sing:
No eyes open
No eyes closed
No smoke on your breath
No eyes closed
No sun on the glass
Nobody but you
I’m no one
There’s nobody, but you
With its unique set of chords, this section could almost be a standalone song, however the arrangement eventually loops back to the original theme, bringing everything full circle. At a little over nine minutes, “Lux Prima”, Latin for “first light”, is a grandiose way to begin a pop album.
It’s the sort of thing prog artists such as The Moody Blues and Pink Floyd liked to do – as opposed to the taut punk energy exemplified by Karen O’s other band, Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
When I recently interviewed Karen O – the O is short for Orzolek – she laughed at my comparison to Pink Floyd. “Oh, right. I’m not that well versed in Floyd but, yeah, I’ve been hearing that,” she said.
As well as the epic sweep of its opening track, the album concludes with its stellar twin, “Nox Lumina”, “night light” in Latin, which segues back to the opening theme of “Lux Prima” for its finale. Pink Floyd would have been proud.
“We didn’t really have a concept going into it or anything like that,” Orzolek said. “But we did think it would be nice to tie it all together with the last song, you know? And for it to feel cyclical, because there are definitely some sweeping themes in there that are elemental in nature… the All, the cosmic All.”
The two thematically linked songs bookend the album in more ways than one, giving it a feeling of unity.
Although there is no single overarching concept behind Lux Prima, there are definite threads connecting most of its songs. When we spoke, Orzolek talked about different ones being connected to the “corporeal” – “Turn the Light”, “Redeemer” and “Leopard’s Tongue” – while others relate more to spiritual concerns – “Drown”, “Reveries”, “Lux Prima” and “Nox Lumina”. “Ministry of Love” is another deeply spiritual song, filled with “nurturing female energy”, as Orzolek described it. “When things were just going really crazy here politically in the States, and a lot of us progressives – progressive people – got quite shaken, like, ‘What the hell is gonna happen to the world, to our kids?’, that song was, for me, bringing it back to love … The Goddess, basically. Mother Nature and the Goddess.”
“Ministry of Love” begins with a sample of delicate acoustic guitar picking, which, unexpectedly, becomes quietly propulsive when a trip-hop rhythm groove is added. The chorus is a glorious burst of effervescence, with luscious synth sweeps and an electric guitar gently chiming through cascading echo effects. The result is breathtakingly beautiful, matching the tenderness of the lyrics: “So day by day / I turn my dreams / into a ministry, a ministry, a ministry / of her love”.
Somewhat unusually, the song modulates to a lower key before the bridge section and remains there until the finish. It’s more common to modulate upwards because it creates a feeling of elevated energy – taking it the opposite way risks doing the reverse. In this case, the modulation lowering doesn’t sap the energy, it is very affecting and adds extra gravitas – the emotions deepen along with the tonality. “Ministry of Love” is easily my favourite song on the album.
“Woman” is imbued with a different sort of female energy. This is the take-no-shit-from-anyone spirit as exemplified by Boadicea, the ancient Celtic warrior. This is partly due to the song having been written in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s confounding election win, however Karen O has never been a shrinking violet. The female energy in “Ministry of Love” is a comforting force but in “Woman” it is all-powerful. “There’s the tickle and there’s the slap,” Orzolek said. “Love’s just great – but you’ve got to put the armour on sometimes.” “Woman” is built upon a pile-driving soul groove and in the chorus the lead vocals alternate between falsetto and her normal register. Karen O’s falsetto seethes with anger. It’s awe-inspiring.
The contribution to Lux Prima from Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton, has been pivotal. As a producer, Burton has worked with artists as diverse as Red Hot Chili Peppers, Norah Jones, U2, The Black Keys, Parquet Courts and Adele. He has been nominated for 12 Grammy awards, winning six in three different categories – as an artist, a songwriter and a producer. Burton does all three here but his production really stands out.
Lux Prima combines modern and traditional instruments and production techniques from different eras, sounding classic and contemporary at the same time. There are “live” drums on many tracks but others use programmed beats and it’s almost impossible to pick the difference. Everything sounds lively and edgy – the music breathes – and there’s a real weight to even the airiest of synth sounds. This is the best production I have heard in a very long time.
“Redeemer” is easily the darkest song on Lux Prima in terms of subject matter. It is written from the point of view of a spurned lover who is bent on revenge. The backing features a twangy echo guitar, like something from a 1960s spy movie.
They let me out
I’ve done my time
I’m brave at night
Out of the light
And I’ve got lust
And you got lost
So I’m coming for you
I’m coming for you
Orzolek described “Redeemer” to me as “one of the songs of the flesh and the seven deadly sins and what it means to be human. The other songs are transcending that, like, the light, but we had to throw that in there, too.” She also described the character she had in mind when she was singing. “I imagined that it was a woman [who] had quite a sordid life leading up to a transformational experience … She just did all the wrong things and there was a lot of ugly stuff going on.”
“Leopard’s Tongue” is another song about destructive desire, based around the startling image of a leopard’s tongue in the mouth of a snake, an impossible beast with an outsized appetite. “It’s like, excess,” Orzolek told me. “These are two quite wild and dangerous and beautiful animals but a leopard’s tongue is too big for a snake’s mouth … But there was something in that that felt really right for the song.”
Most of the album’s lyrics were written by Orzolek, though Burton contributed some lines to the achingly beautiful “Drown”. If “Leopard’s Tongue” and “Redeemer” delve into the dark side of human desire, “Drown” does the opposite, striving for the spiritual fulfilment that can be attained through physical love.
“Reveries” is the second-last track on the album and is another highlight for me. Its protagonist is close to death and is attempting to console a grieving partner who wants them to cling to life for just a little longer.
As I slip
please don’t tempt me with your
So when I go,
I go quietly
Out of your arms
Through space I fell
Through space I fell
I’m fallin’ deep
through my reveries
Out of your arms
Through space I fell
It’s an extraordinary song, made even more remarkable by Orzolek’s poignant performance. The rawness of her voice and guitar accompaniment suggested to me this might have been a home recording rather than something created in the studio. My instinct was correct. Orzolek told me she and Burton ended up using her rough demo because it was impossible to recapture the spirit of that initial version. It was the right decision – artistic truth is far more important than audio fidelity.
At first, Burton adds some incredibly subtle production touches but towards the end the song opens up, going widescreen, so to speak, before returning to the unvarnished demo recording at the conclusion. For some reason, I am reminded of Dusty Springfield’s incredible rendition of Carole King’s “Going Back”, a recording that made the songwriter weep with joy. I think “Reveries” may have a similar effect on many people. The materials are raw and so are the emotions.
Karen O and Danger Mouse first discussed working together as far back as 2007 but it wasn’t until 2016 that the stars, and their schedules, finally aligned. The wait, as they say, was well worth it because Lux Prima is a perfect jewel of an album. Over 40-plus minutes, these two brilliant artists have created an extraordinary world in which they bring out the best in themselves and in each other. I can’t guarantee that you will love this album as much as me, but I am certain you’re going to love it.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 16, 2019 as "Shine on ". Subscribe here.