What comes first in Yeasayer’s writing process – the songs or the sounds? Do they start with the queasiest analog synths they can harness (“Devil and the Deed”, “Demon Road”), then set to work on melody and words? Or do they begin by unearthing the fuzziest vocal filters to match their “demented R&B” vision? It’s difficult to imagine guitarist Anand Wilder writing “Demon Road” on an acoustic guitar. Then again, it’s difficult to imagine writing “Demon Road” period.
Like 2010’s Odd Blood, Fragrant World is a clamorous shift away from the sunshine psychedelica (“2080”, “Wait for the Summer”) that marked the Brooklyn band’s first success. It is heavy, in the most literal sense of the word, and impassably dense. But for all its elastic synths and then-shocking ‘80s sheen, Odd Blood was warmly dynamic. It practically burst open with hooks – a triumphant fight song (“Ambling Alp”), a John Hughesy love paean (“I Remember”), an electro-pop workout (“O.N.E.”) – that have become some of the band’s biggest screamalongs in concert. (Who reading this hasn’t tried to belt the “Madder Red” falsetto squeals?) Fragrant World is an uglier, darker affair, full of tangled synth lines and hyper-compressed rhythm tracks. It’s sometimes brilliant, too, with at least two hooky standouts (“Henrietta”, “Reagan’s Skeleton”) – but it’s also the first Yeasayer album that threatens to collapse under its own teeming weight.
In recent interviews, Yeasayer’s Chris Keating has cited R&B as a prime influence, labeling Fragrant World an exercise in “demented R&B”. “The more I listened to Aaliyah (in high school), the way-weirder it was than the Sonic Youth record that came out around the same time, mostly because of her very futuristic and unexpected production,” Keating told Rolling Stone. “That realization was really exciting, and it’s just stuck with me since then.” Twisted as it is, that influence seems a starting point for Fragrant World. The album draws on Odd Blood’s muddled closing suite, eschewing indie-pop choruses in favor of moodier tempos (“Blue Paper”, “Glass of the Microscope”) and thick, grimy texture (every single track). There’s a clear funk tinge on the album, too, and on first single “Henrietta”, it works. The boom-clap drum loop and accordion-effect synth are propulsive enough, but it’s one of the album’s simplest vocal melodies that powers the track along. When it collapses into a slow-burning ambient buildup, it becomes one of the album’s most triumphant moments – all the more because of how effortless it sounds.
Equally impressive, “Fingers Never Bleed” draws inspiration from an array of stuttering space-funk effects and intermingling rhythm tracks. The song is structurally akin to Odd Blood opener “The Children”, but Keating is wise to leave behind the vocal processors and pitch shifters. Not soon the hard-hitting “Longevity”, which finds the singer’s voice Auto-Tuned and altered over busy, thumping drum loops. “Live in the moment,” Keating croons, “never count on longevity” – fitting for a song buoyed by flashy studio trickery.
That’s not to say the arrangements aren’t admirable. Like Odd Blood, this is dense, forward-thinking pop music, and if Keating’s “futuristic and unexpected production” is what you’re after, Fragrant World makes the cut. Each track is headphone-worthy, but “Devil and the Deed” and “Demon Road” yield some of Yeasayer’s most tangled, dizzying production work yet, the latter burying hooks and countermelodies under a jungle shuffle of flute loops and alien-voiced vocoders. If the tones are futuristic, they’re also fiercely unsettled – fitting fodder for the band’s most dystopian lyrics yet. “Demon Road” frets that “all hell is gonna break loose”, while “Henrietta” reportedly describes “the idea of the human life turning into a product or a concept”. Neither is so bleak as the excellent “Glass of the Microscope”: “I wish I could tell you that it’s alright,” goes the robot-voiced refrain that closes the album. “But the truth is we’re doomed / Consumed by all the truck fumes that would kill you without uttering a sound.”
The sheer swelling density of it all remains Fragrant World’s most glaring fault. Much of the album feels swampy where “Ambling Alp” and “Madder Red” were direct and hooky, and too often the electro clutter weighs it down more. Wilder’s “Blue Paper” emerges plodding and directionless. And while there’s a strange, angular melody buried beneath “Folk Hero Shtick” (you can hear it in concert), you can hardly salvage it from the gratuitous samplers and processors.
“Sometimes you get too carried away with the technology and getting the sounds to sound so crazy and ridiculous that you realize that . . . the song is served much better if it’s stripped down and simplified,” Wilder admitted in the Village Voice. Does that really need a postscript? Yeasayer may be their own enemy in the studio, but they give great advice.
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