Befitting their positivity-tinged moniker, Yeasayer has always skewed toward an effusive amiability—never as daring and manic as Animal Collective, never as downbeat and eerie as former label-mates Liars. They’re a marginal act prone to uneven albums, with a lyrical focus on syrupy environmentalism that’s been their only consistent quality. When the band hits a groove, the results can be hypnotically entrancing; when they miss, their songs often slide into soggily protracted faux-tribalism.
On their third album, Fragrant World, the band hedges their bets, ratcheting down the sprawl and taking fewer risks. This plays like a blessing upon first listen. No more shaggy, repetitive sing-alongs wending their way to nowhere. Songs like “Devil and the Deed” seem to contain the group’s usual feral dynamism within a more concise package; “Fingers Never Bleed” works just as well, accompanying its chorus with a skittery beat and wailing saxophone backing.
But despite the trimming of their sound, Yeasayer remains just as starry-eyed as ever, clinging to the worst elements of ‘60s flower-child psychedelia. Their co-opting of ‘80s electronica functions as a new spin on their usual tribal groove, but it’s a less ambitious one, and the band ultimately hews to current trends rather than developing ideas of their own. This is exacerbated by songs that don’t stand up to close scrutiny: “Reagan’s Skeleton” may work just fine a party track, but its mentions of “Regan’s skeleton in the moonlight” and “sentimental violence” continue a pattern of broad lyrical inanity.
Still nominally inspired by early-‘70s cultists like Forest and Comus, Yeasayer retains a sort of lurching momentum on Fragrant World, with songs that toy with long breakdowns and vocal repetition, and with the organic instruments favored by those acts replaced by machine stutters and laptop beats. These are interesting choices, but few of them are applied in an interesting fashion. This culminates with closer “Glass of the Microscope,” which peddles more environmental fatalism cloaked in moody electronica: “We’re doomed/Consumed by all the truck fumes/That will kill you without uttering a sound,” sings frontman Chris Keating, settling into an ambient soundscape laced with Vocoder vocals. The band’s tendency to overreach may be muted on Fragrant World, but Yeasayer is still as earnestly silly as ever.