Anthem of the Trinity, YACHT’s mixtape of the influences behind their 2008 album See Mystery Lights, drew from music by Nirvana, Outkast, Bad Brains, Snoop Dogg, Terry Riley, Talking Heads, Joy Division, B-52s, LCD Soundsystem, and others. That seemed like a motley crew but made sense — in a way you could hear all of that in the album. I imagine a list of the influences behind their new album Shangri-La wouldn’t be radically different, because the album doesn’t sound radically different. It does feel more focused in a particular direction — those last four bands mentioned above seem particularly pertinent. There’s a strong air of the post-punk ’80s, and at the same time, the album’s driving rhythms make it more DFA-like in spirit, like they’re taking up part of the mantle of the now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, perhaps.
See Mystery Lights was more overtly eclectic. The more upbeat numbers like “Summer Song” are a good starting place for Shangri-La, though, for all its tight dance rhythms, there’s also a lot of darkness in the sound. For one, it’s not just beats that kick and punch; the intricate bass and guitar-playing are just as attention-getting, and where a lot of the post-punk feeling comes from — well, that and the vocals. Thought YACHT founder Jona Bechtolt does occasionally sing, newer member Claire L. Evans is mostly singing lead here, and stridently so, like she’s leading a mass movement.
Shangri-La is not about emulating a traditional feeling of paradise, but dissecting the very notion of what one would be, exploding our collective dreams of a far-off, someday perfect place — of heaven. The first song on See Mystery Lights had the line “Will we go to heaven or will we go to hell? / It’s my understanding that neither are real.” This LP starts with the idea of “Utopia” as something we can’t dream up, but is in our ability to create. “There’s nothing in the future / It’s up to us to make / Utopia.” What’s on earth is all we have; it’s up to us to make it a paradise. That’s the album’s essential theme: the future is an idea that influences us, and that we are in control of. That’s their positive way of phrasing it. On the second song, “Dystopia”, they offer the flipside: a vision of the world burning as we, instead of using our time to save it, dream of some future paradise. It’s not theoretical; they’re talking about the environmental destruction going on around us every day. They take a funk anthem and rewrite it for the chorus: “The earth is on fire / We don’t have no daughter / Let the motherfucker burn.”
Earth is burning on “Beam Me Up” too, or rather the whole universe is burning. These songs on the whole are written as science-fiction, but also activism. The music is full and propulsive, the lyrics as full of ideas. Hard-hitting like “Dystopia” are “Paradise Engineering”, where Evans adopts a somewhat Sonic Youth-ish vocal delivery, and “Holy Roller”. That one starts slow, with a creeping motion or maybe a strut, and explodes into its message, “Don’t you worry about God up above / We’re gonna live life in love.”
Love is in the backdrop much of the time, as a savior, if a temporary one. It’s one thing we have to hold onto. Without it, we are alone (“I Walked Alone”). Still, love thrives and dies all the time, and mutates, as they tell us on “Love in the Dark”, which contains the memorable, and disturbing, lyric, “I love you like a small-town cop / Yeah, I wanna smash your face in with a rock.” There’s also “Tripped and Fell in Love”. Love, like everything else, is not planned. In that song, they take that feeling of suspense and anticipation and pour it into the groove itself.
The last song, “Shangri-La”, is appropriately the prettiest. In an album that’s often quite direct, it offers the most straightforward message. If there is a heaven, it’s here in the places we love. If there is a hell, that’s probably where all of our friends are, so let’s join them. Evans sings, “When the rapture comes / If you don’t mind / I’ll be waiting down here and sweating.” Its references to the rapture make the song feel timely, though in reality there are always people saying the rapture is just around the corner — including, as the album continually points out, not just career apocalypse predictors like Harold Camping, but anyone who professes to know that heaven and hell exist, or that one’s religion has all of the answers. “Shangri-La” is a defiant song, and Shangri-La is a defiant album. It’s also a joyous one that makes a pointed argument, posited on the idea that our current dwelling place, and all of us by relation, loses so much of its potential through our focus on what might be next. The music itself often contains a joy that seems a manifestation of their hope for humanity. “If we build a utopia / Will you come and stay?,” they’re asking, and the question seems about music and the world at the same time.