Release Date: August 21, 2012
Label: Secretly Canadian
Yeasayer’s new album, Fragrant World, is different from their last album, 2010’s Odd Blood, which was different from their first, 2007’s All Hour Cymbals. Difference, and the band’s restless attempts to attain it, is both the Brooklyn band’s best and most irritating quality. What started out as vaguely psychedelic, liberal-arts worldbeat has ultimately morphed into what could roughly be called synth-pop, but wait: This synth-pop is filled with unstable rhythms and weird noises. It is progressive, curious, and almost painfully calibrated to blend things that might sound familiar to you and things that might not.
“We started getting into a mindset of taking a lot of stuff that was uncool and trying to make it cool,” frontman Chris Keating told the New York Times in 2010 — “like New-Age-y music and musicals and gospel.” Keating is bright, thoughtful, and the product of a place and time — namely, the bi-coastal microcosm of culturally informed indie-music fans — where gospel and New Age are dead-ends that supposedly cool people just hang out and dare each other to gentrify. It’s an idea that barely needs my help being any more distasteful than it already is. Music made under these laboratorial conditions is about as formally interesting and spiritually vacant as you might expect. For all its references to blood, bones, fingers, and lips, the primary body part driving Fragrant World is the brain.
Few albums are a better study in the way indie music has changed over the past five years. Its sound is bright, slick, and micromanaged. It reflects a slightly detached interest in R&B and “pop” music, though “pop” in this context is just a vague synonym for “catchy.” It is not dangerous and has no stake in danger. Listening to it is sort of like the experience of going to the doctor as a child, being told that the shot isn’t going to hurt a bit, then feeling disappointed and just a little bit sad when the shot in fact doesn’t hurt a bit.
Song by song, the band stares into the highly ornamented void. There are wonderful parts — particularly “Glass of the Microscope,” the spacious, robotic chorale that ends the album. There’s a component of fuss and anxiety to Yeasayer’s music that can be efficacious in, well, making you feel fussy and anxious, but the reality is that most of the time it only serves to distract from what are occasionally beautiful melodies that deserve space, not clutter. Clutter, though, is what you get here, over and over. It’s exhausting, and it makes the music feel almost absent from itself, like a person who talks endlessly around a point they’re trying to make.
There is a magic to songs like “No Bones” that are borderline indescribable. Broken down to its constituent parts — a jagged, heavily processed synthesizer line; a swinging, half-time R&B beat descended from Timbaland; flurries of processed, heavily effected sounds swarming at the edges — it feels smart, hybrid, and contemporary. It also takes approximately one listen to make its point. The same could be said for most of Fragrant World. It is to Yeasayer’s great credit that they continually manage to make fresh, unfamiliar music that sounds terrible. (To paraphrase Robert Christgau writing about the Eagles, “Another thing that interests me about Yeasayer is that I hate them.”) So much of what the band does hews close to worthwhile, progressive values values — experimenting with structure without sacrificing the pleasures of melody, creating a unique sonic imprint within the confines of writing songs — that my inability to like any of their music has been elevated from an emotional frustration to a real intellectual curiosity.
One of the prettiest moments on the album is when “Henrietta” first dissolves into its coda. “Oh Henrietta,” Keating repeats mournfully, over a cloud of static ambience, “We could live on forever.” Apparently, the song is about Henrietta Lacks, a woman now famous in the scientific community for being the source of an immortal cell line used for research. What sounds like a love song is actually a vehicle for current-events awareness. It’s a neat trick, especially if you think art is wasted on a subject as human as love, which I imagine Yeasayer do — in the same 2010 interview where Keating talked about cool and uncool music, another member, Anand Wilder, called their love songs “exercises.” That seems about right: Exercise is clean, healthy, and disengaged. The intelligentsia don’t do feelings anymore, they do about feelings; and they’re just as unsatisfying as you might expect.