With 2007’s All Hour Cymbals and 2010’s Odd Blood, postmodern darling Yeasayer proved it’s very good at doing very different things: All Hour Cymbals was a psychedelic journey into ethnic genres and freak folk, while Odd Blood set all that aside in favor of infectious dance-party synth-pop—and both worked swimmingly. Fragrant World is another reinvention, but one of attitude rather than style. Moving the electronics-saturated formula of Odd Blood into darker, moodier territory, the band brings back the swollen synths, jittery glitches, and booming tribal beats, but the rambunctious, celebratory execution has been replaced with eerie ritual. Ultimately, however, the record’s biggest sin isn’t that it’s joyless; it’s that it’s relatively ordinary.
Sadly, the album’s subdued approach seems to undermine the band’s best attributes. Abstract dance constructions—here turned into a slinky gothic funk—are rhythmically interesting but lack the punch of memorable hooks. Fragrant World’s lack of fun songs gives the band nowhere to play: The record is piled high with suffocating layers of throbbing bass, densely droning new-wave electronica, distorted vocals, and spastic computer effects, leaving little room for the quirky experiments in proggy riffs, free-form harmonies, and multi-instrumental jams that made Yeasayer stand apart from the hordes of its keyboard-toting brethren.
Sure, there are a couple of half-assed bits of this stuff thrown around here and there (for example, a couple seconds of vocal breakdown crammed into otherwise bland electro-pop on “Reagan’s Skeleton”), but it feels forced and obligatory—to the extent that the group even seems to openly mock itself with the chant-along “Folk Hero Schtick.” (Ironically, with tinges of world music and a thoroughly danceable beat, it’s one of the album’s highlights.) Of course, no band is handcuffed to its past, and Yeasayer’s newfound focus on subtle, surreal atmospheres does produce some starkly affecting moments, particularly on the drifting, haunting “Henrietta.” If the group is through with flourishes of campfire gospel or whatever else, more power to it. But the aloof, introspective outlook isn’t enough to fill the void left behind, nor is it enough to save Fragrant World from sounding somewhat generic.