Two years ago, the experimental Brooklyn group Yeasayer made a ruckus with its bright and infectious blend of urban synth-pop on sophomore release Odd Blood. Before that, it introduced us to All Hour Cymbals, a more trippy experiment with tribal sounds than its catchy followup. Loading its arsenal with swooping croons, fluttering synths and uptempo, unconventional beats, Yeasayer put itself in contention with fore-running psychedelic experimental outfits like Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective. Tracing the evolution of the band from its debut to its more acceptable and impacting second release, you might expect more of the latter on Yeasayer’s latest, Fragrant World. Nope. Yeasayer returns with the same ingredients of its earlier releases, but this time the mix is more experimental, more morose and, at times, surprisingly funky.
Take Yeasayer’s skeletal frame—its offbeat and eccentric percussion. Not much has changed at the core on Fragrant World. Continuing where Odd Blood left off, sludgy lead track “Fingers Never Bleed” develops on rumbling bass and primitive drumming. The plucked synth arpeggio of “Longevity” on its own forms a rhythm before enlisting an unaccented hi-hat beat. The album continues with a similar pattern of rhythmic variation, forming a base upon which Yeasayer delves into new realms of exploration, straying from the path of writing pop songs. But past the percussion and beats, everything gets a little more weird.
In a recent interview with CMJ, Yeasayer guitarist/singer Anand Wilder discussed the band’s choice to take a bit of a different path on Fragrant World. “Sometimes you got to switch it up. Make it interesting,” said Wilder. “I think one of our guiding tenants has always been that cohesion on an album is overrated, and it’s more fun to be able to go all over the place.” And certainly, the band did not shy away from this mindset. The entire album is all over the place, ranging from somber yet danceable electronic to ’80s-referencing New Wave. The vocals in “No Bones” are freakishly similar to Prince’s non-falsetto vocals in hits like “1999,” and its cyborg-ish loop sounds like dubstep from Bollywood. Track “Blue Paper” could fit on a Hot Chip album, if Hot Chip were to ever trade in its shenanigans for a sullen and serious sound. Individually, tracks also tend to morph from beginning to end, breaking the arc of the typical pop mold. Tracks like “Demon Road” drive and develop from an initial concept to a completely different end point, often with that distinctive percussion as the only thread holding the two together.
As Yeasayer alienates itself through experimentation, the band also does this lyrically. While many of the tracks on Fragrant World come off as dance songs, inciting movement and murky merriness, the lyrical content doesn’t convey that same tone. Tracks like “Glass Of The Microscope” explore deep, dark themes, pondering human existence and the inevitable doom of death: “But in truth we’re doomed/Consumed by all the truck fumes/That would kill you without uttering a sound.” Lead single “Henrietta,” though one of the more cheery songs on the album, focuses on the famed Henrietta Lacks whose cancerous cells, later named “HeLa,” have been used for scientific research for decades. But overall, Yeasayer lead singer Chris Keating said in an interview with Rolling Stone, the song “is about the idea of the human life turning into a product or a concept”—life as a commodity. Oh, and there’s the pulsing “Reagan’s Skeleton,” which envisions Ronald Reagan coming back as a zombie. Even the themes throw curveballs from time to time.
On Fragrant World, Yeasayer goes outside of its pop boundaries, experimenting further and further with synthetic textures and funky vocals, all the while targeting some of life’s darkest themes. The album won’t catch your ear on first listen like Odd Blood did, but that’s because the band didn’t want it to. Consequently, the album takes some risks that thrust it outside of preconceived expectations. But it takes backbone to make honest and unapologetic music like Yeasayer has, and because of that Fragrant World deserves more than one listen. And when you give it that chance, this album blooms into something different, deeper and more resonant that, along with its musicality, should be appreciated for its originality and growth.