As a general rule, you could well say that whenever the lead singer of a band starts picking fights with random people and things in interviews, it’s a sign of trouble. That doesn’t always mean an epic war of words between two or more parties. More often than not it’s a cry for attention, the idea of saying something inflammatory to get your name in the press because it might not be there otherwise. Billy Corgan has been pulling this trick for decades, and it’s kept the Smashing Pumpkins on people’s minds even during the last decade when they were churning out loads of crap. Which brings us to Yeasayer’s Chris Keating. Chatting with Rolling Stone about the band’s new album Fragrant World, he openly insulted R. Kelly and the current state of EDM (electronic dance music). And while he complimented Frank Ocean’s excellent work in the R&B genre, he capped it off by saying the genre should “gay it up a little,” referencing Ocean’s bisexuality. Of course he’s still better off than Surfer Blood frontman John Paul Pitts, who is dealing with a much more serious situation right now. But Keating’s comments are helpful because they give the band headlines while distracting from reviews of their new record. If your album is good, the attention will find you even if you don’t open your mouth. So yes, pulling a quote stunt like he did feels like an act of pre-release desperation. Hearing the first two Yeasayer albums All Hour Cymbals and Odd Blood, you might imagine that such a talented band with a great ability to avoid being confined to a particular label or genre would continue to flourish. Unfortunately their unique mixture of freak folk and psych-pop has been brushed off in favor of something decidedly more minimalist and dark. Arrangements are no longer packed with an array of colorful instruments, instead synths and electronic beats seem to be the two driving forces on their songs. Sometimes, as in the chorus of “Fingers Never Bleed,” it brings out a very ’80s R&B vibe that wouldn’t sound too out of place on a Janet Jackson record. Other times it can sound like Chromatics filtered through the lens of The xx, as on “Damaged Goods.” That might make it seem like there’s a reasonable amount of variety across the album, as with the previous two Yeasayer long players. Actually, Fragrant World is the most cohesive and sonically solid record the band has ever made.
It’s a shame then that these are also the most uninteresting and unremarkable songs they’ve ever created as well. Even if you have the patience to listen through the whole thing a half dozen times, it’s unlikely you’ll come across many tracks that distinguish themselves from the pack and actually stay with you. The album’s midsection of “Devil and the Deed,” “No Bones” and “Reagan’s Skeleton” do the best jobs of being reasonably catchy and memorable. As much as they do right, they also just sort of drop off without trying anything truly new or different. There aren’t any twists in spots where there should be, and it feels like something’s missing as a result. The shift away from fuller and more complex arrangements also brings the band’s lyrics into a greater spotlight than ever before. Anyone that’s paid close attention to their last two albums knows Yeasayer aren’t the most prolific songwriters. Their skillfully crafted songs have gone a long way towards covering that problem up. Now pushed to the surface, the words are just another way the band stumbles and falls. It might be a little more forgivable if they had kept some of the uplifting and inspiring themes of their last couple records. Unfortunately much of the new album is about death and darkness, so if the bass-heavy melodies don’t bring you down then the lyrics probably will. “My girl says that all the rain promises is to give life to the seeds/Live in the moment/Never count on longevity,” Keating sings on “Longevity.” While it’s probably not intended that way, you could imagine those lines being mirrored back at the band and their career so far. While it’s admirable that they’re not content to sit still and fully commit to a certain style or genre of music for very long, it could also spell trouble for them if they make one too many wrong moves. Fragrant World may be the start of that inevitable downfall, or it could be a small misstep in an otherwise strong career in music. For the sakes of everyone, let’s hope it’s the latter.