Beyond human voices, natural sounds are scarce on Yeasayer’s third album, Fragrant World. Synthesizers and programmed beats define every song, using tones that flaunt their artificial attacks and ricocheting stereo placements. Even the vocals often arrive haloed in effects or surrounded by computer-tuned harmonies. It’s hermetically sealed pop, very deliberately keeping its distance from everyday physicality, and it suggests not an artificial paradise but a well-guarded isolation chamber.
On a first listen, the music sounds aloof and arty — and it is, full of conceptual wiles. But the next time around, pop hooks sink in; more often than not, Fragrant World is a snappy synth-pop album.
The songs are suffused with misgivings about humanity. Yeasayer has always had them. Back on its 2007 debut album, All Hour Cymbals, the band sang, “I can’t sleep when I think about the future I was born into,” though the music willed itself toward optimism. Not this time.
“Wish I could tell you that we’re all all right, but in truth we’re doomed,” the album concludes in Glass of the Microscope, a dire song about environmental pollution. The music places disembodied, altered voices within a sparse, throbbing track that sounds like it has been bounced off a distant satellite.
Science is a recurring topic in the lyrics, in songs like the reggae-tinged Henrietta, with its seemingly hopeful chorus, “We can live on forever.” It’s not a love song; a verse refers to HeLas, a so-called immortal cell line used by researchers that was derived from the cells of a woman named Henrietta Lacks.
Of course, science also provided the computers and synthesizers that generate the sounds on Fragrant World. Ours is hardly the first era in which pop has considered the interaction of man and machine; there was a lot of that going around in the 1980s, when bands were fascinated by synthesizers far more primitive than what’s available now. Yeasayer at times risks joining the glut of bands recycling ‘80s electropop, and surely knows it. That must be why one of the most retro songs on the album, with an ‘80s club beat, is called Reagan’s Skeleton; its lyrics sketch a horror-movie plot about Ronald Reagan, zombies and the return of trickle-down economics. It’s probably no coincidence that the album appears in this election year.
Near the end of the album, one song fitfully breaks out of the electronic seclusion. It’s Folk Hero Shtick, a snide put-down of a rock star: “Prance around amphitheaters in your swelled head.” The music starts in a synthetic, echoey blur. But identifiable tones soon emerge, with a distorted bass and, at one point, an oh-so-sincere ‘60s sound — an electric 12-string guitar and a psychedelic glimmer of flute (or is it a Mellotron sample of flute?) — before the synthesizers start pumping again. It’s a measure of Yeasayer’s deep gamesmanship that by then, the realistic, natural instruments sound like the intruders.
— JON PARELES, NY Times News Service
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