Yeasayer: Apocalyptic Happiness
Photo by Anna Palma
The lyrical sentiment of Fragrant World is far from being overtly preachy—unlike the cultish figures and cartoonish religious demagogues that helped inspire the band’s moniker. Instead, they subtly weave social commentary into visually evocative poetry that is oblique enough to conjure multiple personal meanings but direct enough for the listener to catch a scathingly critical line in the midst of a synth squeal or thumping bassline. Thanks to hypnotic rhythms, kaleidoscopic sound textures and intoxicating layered soundscapes, the inherent darkness is buoyed artfully, making the cryptic message almost more powerful.
This dark-and-light dichotomy is best represented on “Henrietta,” the arresting first single off Fragrant World. Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who passed away from cervical cancer in 1950, only to have her resilient tumors live on past her death, inspired the song. Because of her self-reproducing cells, Lacks became a guinea pig for scientists, which was helpful but created ripples of moral questionability.
“Apparently those cells from one woman could stretch around the world many, many times,” Keating explains about the story that spawned the song. “And there’s also a sinister side too, because she was basically turned into a commodity in a way for pharmaceutical companies and it became possible for a company to take over the rights to your own body.”
In true Yeasayer form, Keating twisted the macabre yet miraculous story into a swaying sci-fi love song, complete with allusions to immortality through lovemaking. Maybe he took more than just production inspiration from those ‘90s slow jams? “Mid-tempo come-on music is what I think we wanted it to be,” he says of the mantra of the album. “I think that’s what R. Kelly used to describe his music as.”
When I met with Chris and Tuton, the band was readying for a worldwide tour where they plan to unleash the new songs. This all comes months before the official album release, which means exposing fans to the material. “Yeah, I’m nervous—actually really nervous. I think they’ll like it once they’ve heard the record,” Keating says of bringing the new tunes on the road. “We’re going out on tour in three days and the record isn’t coming out until August, and they won’t know any of it. We’re going to play mostly new songs. But it’s good because then you really have to try to play them to make them stand out.”
To give the audience members an ultra-sensory experience—much like the hallucinatory drugs that pair perfectly with the band’s sonic point of view—Yeasayer will also be featuring elaborate visuals created to accompany the fresh music.
“All sets are inherently different because every night is a different crowd, different energy,” Tuton chimes in. “We’re trying to put on the best, most cohesive show possible. And it’s also tied into the visuals too. That’s an important aspect of the live experience.”
(Having not done so earlier, Tuton’s musical pedigree needs to be mentioned though he typically downplays it: He played bass in the Philadelphia-based jamtronica outfit The Ally with Eric Zeiler who now fronts Xylos, while also participating in a Disco Biscuits side projected called The Cookie Dusters, which featured that band’s guitarist Jon Gutwillig along with drummers Joe Russo (Furthur) and Mike Greenfield (Lotus).)
Fragrant World is, hands-down, the most sonically accessible Yeasayer album, thanks to the soul-infused danceabilty and undulating grooves that dominate the solid effort. Keating doesn’t have a problem with this pop appeal, especially if that means exposing younger fans and concertgoers to more obscure bands.
“If you can walk that line and not compromise and not try to sell out, then [pop music] is cool,” he says while checking his phone. “We just do what we like. We’re trying different avenues. I think it’s cool if you can turn some kids on to some cool music, like if we were able to act as the entry point into weirder stuff.”
According to Keating, Yeasayer might be the ultimate gateway drug for the music world, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have greater ambitions. While they’re not looking for world domination—like Tuton’s previous sarcasm might lead you to believe—they do hope to leave a lasting aural impact, but on their terms.
“I think the best way to do that is to access as many people as possible without compromising your integrity,” Keating concludes. “It’s tough, but I think of certain bands who have a huge impact and still have integrity. There’s not many left, but I would like to be one of those types of bands.”
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