The first time I heard them, I heard them live. It was Laneway 2011, and thanks to the enthusiasm of the friend I went with, I was in the front row for Yeasayer, headline act of the smaller Wellington incarnation. I stood bemused, waiting for the band to come on stage, while in the rest of the audience excitement grew. High-energy opener O.N.E. was met by startlingly rapturous applause, though with hindsight comes clarity, and I can now see that the crowd were right to be as frantic as they were. It was, though, an absolutely explosive reaction, the energy of which was maintained by both band and audience alike for the entirety of the show as Yeasayer showcased highlights of their first two albums. Even as a newcomer, I was immediately caught up in their live presence, as well as the cultish fever they induced in the crowd. The popping synth and ecstatic vocals proved to be an unstoppable combination and I was throwing myself around with even the most fanatic of fans by their first chorus. Yeasayer were spectacular, in every sense.
Two years since the release of Odd Blood, Yeasayer returned in 2012 with Fragrant World. Based on the strength of their first two albums, I bought Fragrant World without a moment’s hesitation. However, based on the breadth of their first two albums—they are, at extremes, anything from the most jubilant and buoyant right down to the song that’s going to play at my funeral—it was with some hesitation I actually hit play. The grainy album art was giving no clues, the foreign grey shape as much a mystery as what lay within. I shouldn’t have worried. Within seconds I was welcomed by the rolling synth of opener Fingers Never Bleed. It was an unmistakable trademark of the Yeasayer I had come to love, trickling warmly over syncopated beats to lyrics of survival in a city devoid of warmth. It certainly lacked the vigour of earlier hits, but ever since I first heard them close in 2011 on Ambling Alp, I knew they were capable of building to something momentous.
Henrietta hints at the highs of Odd Blood, but while calling its subject to power, a sinister undertone remains. Nevertheless, with rapid bubbling and distant pulsing, the pace here picks up. Political commentary takes on a lighthearted, if somewhat bloody tone in stand-out track Reagan’s Skeleton. At first, the song seems like one of their most simple. Leading with a throbbing bass, it eschews the level of overt synth found in much of the band’s work, opting instead for a more traditional framework. This all changes when singer Chris Keating tells of being attacked by red-eyed zombies, and the way in which, as his heart is ripped out, “blood trickled down, economically.”
It’s not until near the end of Fragrant World that we find the real gem. Folk Hero Shtick, the penultimate track, starts with a crackling, undulating flow, like an old warped vinyl. The lyrics are indistinct at first, lost as they flow in and out of the music. They fade one final time, before snapping into sharp focus, and with a sharp, warbling tune, the rest of the song comes with it. What started as an undulation becomes a pulsating bass, running alongside angular polyphonics. The contrast of muffled and subdued with brash and colourful is where we finally find the fun that made Yeasayer’s first two albums so enjoyable.
While there is evidently a shift in tone since Odd Blood, Fragrant World is just as brilliant in my eyes. A first turn through left me wanting for the raucous highs delivered on previous albums, but a second run and I was smitten. Maybe trading frenzy for feeling somewhat, Fragrant World has easily secured itself a place as one of my favourite albums of the year. These polished studio versions never reach the same frenetic glee of O.N.E. or Ambling Alp, but that may all change when Yeasayer return, bringing the album to life at Laneway in 2013. Rougher around the edges, with a bit of fire behind them—a fire you can count on Yeasayer to bring—it could be a whole different story. You can be sure I’ll be front row again to find out.