Album Review: Yeasayer – Fragrant World

[Secretly Canadian; 2012]

On April 11th, 2008, Yeasayer played “2080,” still the best cut from their 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals, on Jools Holland. It was one of the most memorable televised performances I have ever witnessed. Chris Keating’s performance (not to mention his dancing–hiccupped flailing that falls somewhere near David Byrne) and his band’s exuberant commitment to creating their own self-contained musical cosmos was truly breathtaking.

That night was a microcosm of All Hour Cymbals as a whole: an alluring balance of execution and budding potential. After a three-year silence, their follow-up, 2010’s Odd Blood, rattled off occasionally ingenious sonic expulsions. It was erratic, but never unlikable. And while it is now fairly clear to me that Yeasayer are probably incapable of making a bad album, Fragrant World is most certainly their weakest to date. At its worst, it’s a rehashing of some of the less captivating moments on Odd Blood. At its best, it’s an intelligent rendition of some of their more idiosyncratic tendencies, although a few of those have disappeared as well.

Fragrant World is a bit of a cynical record, much darker than past efforts. This is not the same group that jubilantly traversed their way through the sonic muck. The road is gloomier, with more obstacles, and mistrust and pessimism are common areas of exploration. Turns out Yeasayer can be just as persuasive with hardened hearts. “I don’t buy it for a second” is repeated continuously on “Blue Paper,” a jaded sort of wisdom filling the void where there was once joy.

If there’s one thing that Yeasayer have really nailed down with Fragrant World, it’s the distillation of their sound. Every component feels like it’s contributing to part of a single piece; for the first time, nothing ever feels like it’s in competition with itself. This is a highly harmonized record. “Fingers Never Bleed” gets the ball rolling, capturing the consummate Yeasayer aura; generous dollops of liquid synth, evocative lyrics, and some pop sensibility sandwiched in between eccentricities. “Longevity” skulks along, swampy and unhinged, dragging its feet with a visible chip on its shoulder. “Live in the moment/ Never count on longevity,” insists Keating.

Musically, the album is less intricate than we’ve come to expect. Blitzing polyrhythms are largely done away with, and nearly every song is in the standard 4/4 time signature. Percussive flutters are largely limited to hi-hat twiddling, although these sounds are often mechanized, and it’s often impossible to tell if they’re using a drum machine or not.

There’s also a distinctive R&B influence here. This is harnessed successfully at first, but after a fine trio of opening tracks, Fragrant World begins to lose its way. “The Devil and the Deed” ineffectively attempts to merge this new direction with their more traditional world instrumentation. The music feels strained and feeble, sure of itself, but also straining to achieve its goals, and the melody is awkward. “No Bones” is just stagnant, all distinguishing characteristics lost under a whirl of muddled electronics, and marred by discordant, throaty singing and bland lyrics: “But make no bones about it/ We’re older now than I’d like to admit.”

At the halfway mark, you figure Keating’s knockout vocal performance is probably just around the corner, but it never comes. His voice almost always shielded by reverb, phasers, autotune, or just too low in the mix to stand out. It may be more correct to say he’s never given a fair opportunity; it never feels as though he has full command of the songs, as if the studio is constantly propping him up. Keating has proven that this doesn’t need to be the case, but it is anyway. There’s no “Ambling Alp” or “2080,” both of which placed his voice dead center and allowed him to show off his skill as a singer. Fragrant World never affords Keating his moment, and it’s made all the worse by the continuous anticipation of one.

After a meandering middle section, standout “Reagan’s Skeleton” succeeds at capturing the feel of a corporeal, midnight horror show. Everything is swathed in grime and cobwebs, while unseen creatures dangle overhead and crawl over your feet. It’s a more straightforward affair, with clubby sub-bass, woodblock percussion and tinny keyboards, a near-perfect marriage of lyrics and affectation. It’s unfortunately followed by “Demon Road,” parts of which feel overthought, and parts of which feel as though they have been improvised. The melody is undercooked, the instrumentation strangely hookless.

Each of these tracks feed into one another reasonably well, but their overall quality varies considerably. Lead single “Henrietta” never finds itself after its halfway mark, stuck in a safe zone that Yeasayer have found themselves in before, like with “Strange Reunions.” The manically creative “Folk Hero Shtick” swivels back and forth between overdriven gushes of bass synthesizer and finger-picked guitars, not overly committed to its own stability. It’s imbalanced, engaging, unpredictable and surprising in its stylistic choices.

Fragrant World finds Yeasayer confidently trimming the hedges and tweaking their sonic parameters, with modest success. Inconsistency is what ends up holding it back though, and the second half is too much of a struggle to actually be enjoyed. The inclusion of filler is disappointing, and it isn’t something that Yeasayer has needed to resort to before. The thematic and musical revamping is impressive, even for a band that seems to enjoy turning itself inside out on a regular basis, but it isn’t quite matched by the execution.