Yeasayer have risen to prominence largely on the back of their creative, catchy songwriting; however, their embrace of risk may have been just as important of a factor. Their approach to music has been “big” in almost every sense of the word. Every album seems to be an attempt to even further expand the Yeasayer world, grabbing at moods and sounds that were never there before. They originally described their music as “Middle Eastern-psych-snap-gospel,” so it's a wonder that people have been surprised by their idiosyncratic progression. But surprising is exactly what it has been. The transition from All Hour Cymbals to Odd Blood saw an experimental band reigning in some of their oddities and focusing on hooks. It was like watching Animal Collective's progression from Sung Tongs to Merriweather Post Pavilion on fast forward, with a little MGMT thrown in there. All of a sudden, “O.N.E.” was being played at frat parties and Yeasayer was ordained to be a breakthrough act.
Fragrant World is a lot of things but it is definitely not a breakthrough album. Instead, the Brooklyn band have returned to the drawing board and come up with something much more stripped down and brooding than their previous efforts. Chris Keating's voice is more prominent in the mix and there is an oddly sinister tone to much of the album. Gone are the joyous hooks and general party atmosphere. In their place one finds a collection of songs that seem to know what they want to sound like (Hot Chip, Grimes, King of Limbs-era Radiohead) but aren't quite sure how to make it happen. There are some notable moments but ultimately Fragrant World is dragged down by its indecisiveness, ostentatious songwriting, and general lack of purpose.
“Fingers Never Bleed,” the album opener, sports a gothic-pop vibe and heavy amounts of echo. The song too often obscures its relatively strong melody (which has a nice moment in the chorus) with cliché synths and unnecessary tangents. The same is true for a number of tracks on the album. “Devil and the Deed,” “No Bones,” “Demon Road,” and “Damaged Goods” all start out with some promise but they get overly absorbed with electronic tinkering and loose a sense of effective songwriting. Too often it seems like the band is jamming odd sounds into the track just to be odd; and I wouldn't necessarily mind that but the sounds aren't even all that interesting. “Devil and the Deed” has superfluous and downright annoying noise flourishes throughout and Keating's lyrics, now that they are more noticeable, are not as poignant as he wants them to sound. He sings “you could never handle if she was into magic/ you could never stand if she couldn't speak your language/ you wouldn't let yourself get mistaken for your whole class/ shake it out your big fat head.” Somehow it sounds worse in the song.
The album's most worthwhile moments either recall the Yeasayer of old or progress past the awkward limbo that most of the album finds itself in. “Henrietta” is strange and funky in all the right ways. The bass line makes for one of the album's few head-bobbing moments and it drives the raucous first two minutes of the song. The song then shifts into a building melody that is both somber and beautiful. It's the kind of tune that one might have expected coming out of Odd Blood – grandiose, danceable, and strangely catchy. “Glass of the Microscope” isn't really any of those things but it is effective nonetheless. It is a slow-burning, minimal track that gracefully builds into the album's finale. The song might be Yeasayer's most direct aping of other artists yet (The xx and Shlohmo amongst others) but at least the replication is coherent. Plus, the track is centered around one of the albums most memorable refrains. It's a song that proves that, when in doubt, copy the people you like and throw in a soaring melody.
You might argue that Fragrant World is a grower. That's possible, but if we could compare albums and chairs for a moment, it seems that this album is more cheap plastic and shiny veneer than it is a relic of tattered wood. The latter may appear flawed but it will slowly develop character over the years. The former (i.e. Fragrant World) will simply become sun faded and end up covered by a tarp in the garage. Yeasayer likely still have lots of different sounds to visit in their career. They are risk takers, and, unfortunately, that's one of the better things that can be said about Fragrant World. [C]