Review: Yeasayer – Amen & Goodbye

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There are some bands out there that elicit a uniform response of “this is good, but all their albums sound the same.”

Yeasayer is not one of those bands. Their 2007 debut All Hour Cymbals combined psychedelic sounds, assorted chanting, and Middle Eastern musical influences to make one of the more unique releases in the past decade. Despite garnering very high praise, the band opted not to rest on their laurels and changed things up for their 2010 follow-up Odd Blood, which was more electronic-oriented and contained a number of pop-tinged tracks. It wasn’t quite synthpop, but singles like “Ambling Alp” and “O.N.E.” won them a considerable fanbase with their accessibility. The band then switched things up again in 2012 with Fragrant World, which ditched the pop hooks for a more subdued, droning feel. Each of these albums had their merits, and it’s not a stretch to say they could have been recorded by three different bands.

If there’s one trait that unifies Yeasayer’s albums, it’s that they’re weird. The band frequently attracts the “experimental” label, the same descriptor applied to Animal Collective, yet Yeasayer is a different kind of weird. While Animal Collective is frequently abstract, full of moments that for better or worse make you wonder “what am I listening to?,” Yeasayer is more surrealist (if you can’t tell by the album art). In other words, their music tends to utilize conventional song structures but adds unconventional effects, eliciting more of a “huh, this is odd” reaction.

This is again the case for Amen & Goodbye, an unusual album that shows the band trying to regain some of their pop sensibilities. The result isn’t as radio-friendly as Odd Blood, nor is it as peculiar as All Hour Cymbals or Fragrant World. Instead, Amen & Goodbye is both eccentric and eclectic – it might be the first Yeasayer album that doesn’t entirely come out of left field, and it also might be their first album without one defining style.

Amen & Goodbye opens with “Daughters of Cain,” a largely acapella track reminiscent of the beginning to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Only instead of asking “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” the choir of Yeasayer members ask “Are we the sons of Seth? And the daughters of Cain?,” kicking off a vague biblical motif on the album. This intro track then segues into the album’s lead single “I Am Chemistry,” a psychedelic song that features vocalist Chris Keating singing about…toxic chemicals? Yes, Keating namedrops foxglove, DDT and fits in the both clunky and impressive lyric “A C4H10FO2P puts you on your knees” referencing sarin gas during the track. And if these lyrics don’t impress, guest vocalist Suzzy Roche of The Roches sings a verse towards the end that sounds like an angelic choir. Between this and the opening track, Amen & Goodbye is already the most grandiose thing Yeasayer have done.

 

The full production doesn’t stop there, as Suzzy Roche appears again on track “Half Asleep,” which is best described as sounding like a discordant medieval folk song. The album’s longest track “Gerson’s Whistle” is mostly a blur of synthesizer, guitar, piano and Keating’s vocals, yet a choir emerges halfway through to ask “oh can you hear there is something there in the darkness?” Both of these tracks are as much fantasy epic soundtrack as they are an experimental music trio from Brooklyn.

While this is all unconventional enough, Amen & Goodbye is full of other moments that really reinforce the band’s weirdness. To start, there’s a few interlude tracks that seem to exist solely to remind you of this fact.  The first of these “Computer Canticle 1” is just 30 seconds of a droning noise, while the second “Child Prodigy” is a minute of applause over a clavichord playing. Even the album’s title track is just roughly 30 seconds of space noises, unexpectedly placed at the very end of the album. Elsewhere, the song “Prophecy Gun” builds slowly with hymn-like vocals that include lyrics like “so while you dream of blonde eschatology, Ezekiel’s sermons seem so unreal to me.” While not a bad track, it’s energy seems more appropriate for Fragrant World. There’s also “Divine Simulacrum,” which aside from having a song title straight from a Mars Volta album is a little too heavy-handed with its industrial beats.

Although Amen & Goodbye frequently spares no expenses, it also contains some of the best straightforward pop songs the band has done since “O.N.E.” The song “Silly Me” features guitarist/second lead vocalist Anand Wilder telling a simple tale of relationship regrets over catchy synthesizer melodies and dancefloor beats. Meanwhile, Keating sings on “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Cold Night,” which are only a few sound effects removed from being no-frills rock songs. Each of these is an album highlight and places Amen & Goodbye on the more accessible side of Yeasayer’s discography.

Yeasayer’s past material has given them multiple styles they could have replicated, so it’s admirable that they managed to come up with something entirely new four albums later. That said, it’s difficult to tell what they came up with. The simple pop songs are worth multiple replays and the more theatrical songs are notable in their own right, yet many of the tracks don’t fare well when separated from the album. The overt weirdness can sometimes seem a little too deliberate, and the gentleness too dull. But all together Amen & Goodbye is a fairly remarkable collage, and one that places the band on a very interesting trajectory.

Rating: 6.5/10