Philosophically speaking, you are sort of acquiescing your own context by releasing any form of art into the public. In other words: upset your music got used in a car commercial? Get over it. The context of the song leaves the artist and becomes a simulation of the thing it was intended to be. Entertainment, the song as commodity, is but the abstraction of the thing at work, the net that captures the masses. To indulge it is fine, but to rely on it is immoral, in the sense that you’ve ignored its individual grace and beauty. Art is not concerned with the perception of art, only with its participation. Art reflects that which feeds into it, making the artist merely a vessel of the masses’ innermost thoughts. It’s easy to say that entertainment is nice and needed, but it is that presumption that keeps art from fully becoming the Other that it is intended to be: the world’s self-portrait through a shattered lens. Art shows us through sensory experience that entertainment is only a small thing that lends itself to the visceral whole that is artistic experience and expression. The real problem here is people’s unwillingness to be truly human when experiencing art. No one wants to be reminded that cognition is merely a piece of the whole.
That being said, with Fragrant World, Yeasayer have refused to draw a line in the sand, instead building on the context in which their music will be placed — a quiet defiance rather than an obnoxious march. Pop music as a whole is a reductive beast. It says just enough to get a point across in the least amount of time possible. It is exactly as the term could imply: a quick “pop,” a short burst of experience. With those short bursts come labels, abstractions, and Yeasayer’s goal is to embrace commodified trigger words like “dancey beat,” “club music,” “slow jam,” etc. On Fragrant World, Yeasayer start off immediately bathing unapologetically in pop tropes. The sound is more refined pop: abstract in form, but not in structure; it not only features less jarring changes from track to track, but also lacks a narrative arc. Even the “freakouts” are refined, almost too calm, perhaps a byproduct of pop’s clean, non-confrontational nature. All of these things speak to the end of immediacy. And yet Fragrant World is still weird. The music, although innocuous in form, subverts those notions of “pop comfort” by using alien bleeps and blips, gurgling samples, and subterranean vocals. Indeed, the Yeasayer of Fragrant World is a more refined three-piece suit band that wears a bold tie and hypermodern shoes as a middle finger to the establishment. That is, they follow the rules while undermining them.
Yeasayer have spoken quite a bit in interviews (even as far back as All Hour Cymbals) about their idea of dance music, which appears to reduce the genre, if you will, down to abstractions — i.e., a danceable beat equals dance music. It’s the mistake that all pop music makes and also the thing that sets electronic music apart from pop immediacy (why remixes even exist). Yeasayer hope to reappropriate dance music into a pop scope, but without utilizing the tropes or tricks that make one’s body move for Janet Jackson nods and sub bass undertones. In a way, that is their point. On tracks like “Devil and the Dead,” Yeasayer seem to purposely edit the curse words in the lyrics, dipping out after the first syllable and leaving its vulgarity as an implied aside — autonomously becoming the very nature of pop music’s crisp, clean, radio-friendly image: they edit themselves before the censors can.
One could easily argue that Yeasayers’ rather “tame” breakdowns could’ve/should’ve been the building block for the entire track. Immediacy overcomes the need of narrative arc here, and that in itself comments on the pop structure, begging the questions: How much can one shove into three minutes, and how neat can we keep the song in the process? In an interview with Under the Radar, Anand Wilder talks about their attempt to “capture the schizophrenia of what it’s like to be alive today,” which is shown here in the jarring mix of genres: a gumbo, if you will. One can feel the mind grabbing at its body’s flailing limbs, attempting to gain control or maybe vice versa: the body is attempting to force the mind to account for the varied signals that have been sent out. Once again, pop this refined can’t ever hope to contain the level of ambivalence and distraction that it’s commenting on, but it does contain the idea, nonetheless. Yeasayer hope to address an issue that is contained by postmodern deconstruction and combination, but never getting down to the essence of the issue. That is not to say that they’ve made an unsuccessful pop album or even a commentary on it; it is more to say, What does it mean to make a pop amalgam in a post-postmodern world? By virtue of its existence, its embrace of pop rules, Fragrant World asks the “pop world”: why ride on idolized tropes when one can simply make an album that is a self-contained thing? They paradoxically answer the question by being the question.
On album closer “Glass of the Microscope,” the pairing of strange vocals with the dreamy synths and muted drum beats is brilliant in its exploration of opposites, making good on the promise of Odd Blood’s “The Children.” It is grotesque in form and focus, as singer Chris Keating spits out the line: “I’ll kill you without uttering a sound.” This type of concoction is the grand idea that they have been trying to assert from the start of the album: a subversion of the picture-perfect idols that we call structure and immediacy. In a way, they did just that by making an album that, like their last one, slowly dips into the pool of the weird and egregious. The two albums back-to-back show a slow and somewhat cyclical descent into abstraction as a building block. If only the entire album rode the nightmarishly tropical bliss of this closer, but perhaps that’s for the next album.
Despite giving themselves over to a completely pointless ideal, Yeasayer soar with sublime choruses that are everything that pop has been trying to realize: high-art dionysian bliss contained in three- to four-minute bursts. Although the concept of “pop” undermines the entirety of music’s construction and aim, these songs manage to comment on that while simultaneously embracing its restricting qualities. In other words, Fragrant World is somewhat both posthuman and existential, embracing the inevitable end of being a commodified form of one’s self: immediacy over extended scrutiny. Hopefully, Yeasayer’s next effort will see them expand beyond abstractions into the abstract.