Yeasayer’s highly-anticipated third album, Fragrant World, arrives today at the tail end of the hottest season we’ve had around here in the last hundred years, and the album is unfortunately an uneven collection of highs and lows - the highs are really high, but the lows are also pretty damn low. If you’ve had a summer filled with intermittent memories of roller coasters, music festivals, and camping trips, woven over a LOT of days spent drifting around your pool eating Cheetos in a heat-induced stupor, then this album may be the soundtrack for your summer.
While Fragrant World contains many of the elements you might miss from Radiohead’s OK Computer, the entire grouping of eleven songs lacks the depth of the earlier album and makes it impossible to even remember half the titles. “Fingers Never Bleed,” “Longevity,” and the first single “Henrietta” are so infectiously good that they make the weak tracks that much more disappointing. There’s obviously a heavy 80’s influence here, but it’s as if Yeasayer were shooting for the range of Joy Division but wound up solidly mimicking Depeche Mode. There’s nothing exactly wrong with Depeche Mode, but when was the last time you pulled out Some Great Reward and listened over and over again? FW tends to be more sparse than other recent releases in this genre, with as much emphasis on distilled vocals as on a layers of bass lines and synthesizers. While this makes the music more accessible than some other offerings, at times it can be monotonous.
“Fingers Never Bleed” is a song I keep coming back to because of the unusual sounds they’ve come up with in the chorus – best described as ‘very ill bagpipe’, it’s actually gorgeous, haunting and indicative of all the things that Yeasayer got right on this record. Each time through I’m convinced that it’s the best track on the album, but then “Longevity” starts up and I get all confused again. The lead single, “Henrietta,” has been out all summer, and it’s frankly terrific - the first half of the song is a driving dance number with an instantly recognizable pattern, but then the whole song stops right in the middle and changes course, like a current changing or the tide at the break point. The second half of the song has throaty bass tracks grounding the otherwise ethereal vocals, and it goes from slinky dance to something more serious, more somber, and just better.
If it’s so ass-kicky, why does “Henrietta” have such an old-fashioned name, you ask? The song was inspired by Henrietta Lacks, a woman who (unbeknownst to her) produced a line of super cells that have been the basis of some of the most notable medical research of the past 60 years. Like being polio-free? Thank Henrietta. That Yeasayer would write a dance song about her, plus the fact that Chris Keating recently elevated his stock in the minds of sane people by calling R. Kelly “‘a terrible piece of sh*t’” in a Rolling Stone interview, wherein he simultaneously lauded Frank Ocean and said R&B needed to “‘gay it up a little,’” makes you want to love the album as a whole more. But that love may find itself a little too tough to reciprocate.
The weakness is that inevitably the other songs sound like filler, and not good filler, either. Instead of just letting a boring track run, you may actually feel compelled to push the fast forward button - tracks like “Blue Paper” aren’t up to level of Depeche Mode B-sides, and when they follow something as substantial as “Longevity,” the contrast is marked.
FW closes with “Glass of the Microscope,” wherein the band deconstructs much of the layered sounds built in the first 10 tracks and end up with a Laurie Anderson knock-off. It’s quite pretty, and the lyrics tell you to avoid choking on truck fumes that could kill you without a sound, so thanks for that, Yeasayer, but the real beauty of the song is that you don’t have to like Laurie Anderson to like this track (and fess up - who really likes Laurie Anderson? Give it up, hipsters, you know she’s annoying).
No matter how many times you listen to “Blue Paper,” “No Bones,” or “Damaged Goods,” the filler tracks never rise above the level of something any kid with a laptop has posted on Youtube. So what’s the verdict on the album? Download a few of the songs for your Best Mixtape Ever, and leave the rest of Fragrant World to figure out how to liven up.