For all the critical buzzwords ascribed to 2007’s All Hour Cymbals — psychedelic, ethereal, sonically adventurous; Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey described a “pan-ethnic spiritualism” derived in the Byrne/Eno tradition — there was always something intangibly organic about the album; earthy, even. It was the sort of cavernous, lightly doctored indie-pop you could throw on a mix with Fleet Foxes or Yellow House-era Grizzly Bear without getting odd looks. Just witness the airy layers of acoustic ambience that surround “Wait for the Summer”, or the unabashedly rootsy harmonies that make “No Need to Worry” a thing to behold.
Then witness how completely that all unravels in the queasy, synthetic opening moments of “The Children”.
This — a menacing headfuck of industrial beats and almost comically incomprehensible vocal perversion — is your invitation to Odd Blood. Spoiler: it’s not inviting. Nor is it even vaguely reminiscent of the band once upon a time responsible for Cymbals’ pastoral leanings. But once the shock wears off — once the chorus arrives — the track’s claustrophobic, hard-hitting trip-hop is rendered not only palatable, but oddly triumphant. No, it is not inviting. But like Odd Blood itself, it can be a hell of a trip.
If Yeasayer has some explaining to do, consider the following: in 2007, MGMT was still opening for Of Montreal. Passion Pit wasn’t a blip on the radar. Hercules & Love Affair was months from fruition. The point? Indie’s seemingly spontaneous and surprisingly successful love affair with flamboyant disco revivalism had yet to take hold. Now, suddenly, it has; and Odd Blood, laced with jungle-dense beats and rainbow synths, dipped in an overwhelmingly psychedelic veneer, plays like Yeasayer’s fearlessly decadent response.
Still, the album’s flashy electro-pop production can be shocking, like a jump straight from Sung Tongs into Merriweather Post Pavilion. Surely the latter record’s swirling soundscapes informed the recording of Odd Blood at least a bit. Even more shockingly, though, the group has the pop smarts to make it work, especially on the record’s flawless first half.
“Ambling Alp”, the infectious first single, drops sly references to Max Schmeling (the German boxer later found to have risked his life to save two Jewish children) between a reggae-tinged motivation speech of a chorus (“Stick up for yourself, son / Never mind what anybody else done”). “I Remember” is even better, a soaring, slow-motion ode to sheer love (“I remember making out on the airplane / Still afraid of flying, but with you I’d die today”) and majestic falsetto. So is “O.N.E.”, with its compulsively danceable backbeat and masterfully layered synths. One after the other, these are wildly inventive pop creations, comparable to “Kids”, “Electric Feel”, “Sleepyhead” — choose your favorite — in terms of matching flawless melodic currency with retro disco influence and densely modern electronic flourishes.
Odd Blood only falters in its tenuous third act, where “Grizelda” and the Eastern-tinged “Strange Reunions” strive clumsily to tack gimmicky electro-effects onto slower, directionless material. “Mondegreen” thankfully intervenes with one of the record’s most frenzied moments, a wild and disorienting jumble of ’80s Casio, TV on the Radio-style horns, and hyperspeed boom-clap rhythm. This is pop music at its most imaginative, bewildering, and unrestrained. It’s not what Yeasayer once was, and who cares? They have avoided the sophomore slump the only way they know how: by fearlessly dismantling everything that made their debut a safe bet.