As a promotional device for their third album Fragrant World, Yeasayer devised an online scavenger hunt in which social networking clues led fans to each track from the album. It seemed only appropriate for a band whose whole artistic persona entailed leading listeners through various hidden realms via eccentric and artful pop melodies. Yeasayer, to this point, has rarely taken an easy route, building up dense and progressive indie rock tunes that at once seemed very much of the present, but frequently nodding to classic rock, be it Fleetwood or Floyd. Nor has Yeasayer been content to repeat themselves; in their shift to more accessible, electronic pop on Odd Blood, they retained the mystical, mysterious presence of predecessor All Hour Cymbals, but by then the music had taken on entirely different properties.
Once again, Yeasayer has undergone a kind of metamorphosis with Fragrant World, this time casting off the hypnotic electro-psych of its predecessor with a more explicit turn at disco and R&B, as well as the glitch commingling of the two as heard in artists such as Grimes. This, admittedly, is not an easy path to take. POP ETC., to pick out one glaring example, tried a similar tack and failed spectacularly. Fragrant World is not even close to crashing and burning in such a horrific fashion, though it does present a mild disappointment. As much as the band deserves plaudits for being bold enough to move into new directions without hesitation, their constant need to keep moving has led them into less satisfying territory.
On a surface level, Fragrant World is a perfectly decent album, and a handful of times even comes close to past glories. But its elements just don’t seem to fit right. Yeasayer never seemed like apt candidates for a late night dance album to begin with, but when a fairly straightforward electro-pop track like “Blue Paper” gets sidelined with an extended series of electronic squeaks, it grows even more confusing. The paper thin synths and lumbering trip-hop beats beneath Chris Keating’s effects-treated falsetto on “Longevity” add up to the least sexy single in the band’s career, despite some pretty obvious attempts at the contrary. And “Devil And the Deed”‘s uncomfortable mash-up of Timberlake-style pop and Books-like IDM chop-ups combines two seemingly good ideas into one bad one, coming out the other end like a Frankfurter smothered in whipped cream.
It’s all the more frustrating, then, that Fragrant World has some brief periods in which the band hits a satisfying groove. “Henrietta” pulses with the same weirdo funk that made Odd Blood appealing, yet does so with an even stronger aim at accessibility. It grooves and bubbles in all the right ways, as does the almost DFA-like disco of “Reagan’s Skeleton,” about as funky a track as Yeasayer’s ever produced, if not necessarily the strongest. These tracks not only save the album from succumbing to the weight of its indulgences, they seem to reveal the end result of what Yeasayer was ultimately attempting, yet ultimately stumbled upon repeatedly. Nobody’s asking for another “2080,” but instead of playing to the weird, new age atmosphere that made that song a success, they merely apply their electro slop to a style that proves much less flattering. Deep within the group’s newfound R&B grooves are some ideas worth holding onto, but Yeasayer can only ask their listeners to dig so long before ultimately deciding it’s not worth the effort.
Stream: Yeasayer – “Henrietta”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.