If there ever existed such a thing as a modern art album, Amen & Goodbye, Yeasayer’s fourth studio attempt, would undoubtedly be it. As eloquently bewildering as ever, the New York experimental rock outfit successfully disembark from the restrictions of melodic, synth-pop constructions as they explore the fringes of their bizarre expressionism. Caught somewhere between the folk-stimuli of Fleet Foxes and TV on the Radio’s eclectic soirée of genre-benders, Amen & Goodbye was self-described by the band as “Sgt. Pepper meets Hieronymous Bosch meets Dali meets Pee-Wee’s Playhouse,” and that odd analogy is reason enough for its placement in a museum.
Like Bosch’s paintings, the album is an unceremonious clamor of colorful medleys, with pockets of neo-psychedelia and moments of hysteria scattered for buoyancy. “Daughters of Cain” is your introduction to Yeasayer’s fantastic soundscape, and you’re immediately bathed in the splendor of its crescendoing vocal harmonies. These sublime tones eventually peak and you’re dropped into the virulent depths of, “I Am Chemistry,” and as the band’s Middle Eastern/African rhythms take center stage, you find yourself stumbling forward on staccato percussion (as well as echoes of Sgt. Peppers-era compositions). Before you can recover, an array of unearthly synths begin beaming at you, and as you’re carried into the atmosphere you pass a painted skyline of blue and white clouds filled with choirs of cherubs singing in their euphonious trills, “My mama told me not to fool with oleander/And never handle the deadly quaker buttons again.”
It’s a breathlessly majestic introduction and for the rest of Amen & Goodbye’s forty-minute play, Yeasayer manages to chisel out the drastic contradictions of their multi-limbed influences into a coherently illustrious landscape. In “Silly Me,” subdued pop grooves collide with the folk flavors of jittery percussion and the confused hum of exotic strings–if Dali had a soundtrack, it’d sound something like this. There is also a solemn spirituality that pulses tangibly throughout and the result is a strangely psychedelic-gospel; from angelic harmonies cut with twittering acoustic guitars and shrill clarinets (“Half Asleep”), to hallowed murmurs carried solely by quiet riffs and buzzing synths (“Prophecy”). This surreal mysticism abounds across Amen & Goodbye, and it’s articulation gives animation and chromatic to the album’s beautiful chaos.
But this is modern art, and so only partially rooted in the classical. To this end, Yeasayer reconfigures today’s pop influences with eerie string melodies, outlandish instrumentals, and improvised vocalizations into funky hits (“Dead Sea Scrolls” aka the Pee-Wee’s Playhouse equivalent of music). Sullen processions of drums and bass trudge forward on “Divine Simulacrum,” as hazy, overlapping vocals oscillate under the weight of their pseudo-love. “Gerson’s Whistle” exists as the climax of Amen & Goodbye’s gentle pilgrimage and is five minutes of rapturous bliss. At first a moody, 80s stylized groove, the song endlessly unwraps (and rewraps itself) into a weighty piano accompaniment and a gushing clarion of background vocals.
“They yell out okay crazy/The world must have made him insane,” the song’s dismal chorus rings out, as a thunderous clamor of percussion and distorted guitars warble alongside melancholy hums. Winding down towards the twilight of its existence, Amen & Goodbye holds up in offering a glumly doting ballad in “Uma,” as soft fingerings of ivory keys and the incandescent glow of electric guitar plucks float meekly in worship of the song’s unreachable namesake. Out of murky darkness springs the spark of light that is “Cold Night,” a rumbling exertion of emboldened indie-rock purity. Between grumbling guitar riffs and propulsive percussion, a broken soul wonders if they could’ve prevented their friend/lover’s death (a possible suicide).
“Is there something I could’ve told you/ To carry you through the cold night/Would you hang on my every word/Was there nothing sacred you could hold onto,” yearning for answers he’ll never receive, the poignant confusion and hurt bleeds through by the gallons. Jumping from one to five years later, the song tracks his incapability to move on from the crushing guilt that has left him a shattered pulp in its aftermath.
Brandishing their Bollywood-inspired themes and internationally savvy recognition of cross-culture musical styles, Yeasayer remains the definitive tether of originality for music today. Not since the vivid narratives of Funeral has an album explored the contorted taboos of loss and death with such voracious intent. With Amen & Goodbye, the quartet have rooted their avant-garde antics in the complex spirituality of their conflicted characters–redrawing the boundaries of their stalwart progressions and coming to terms with their own mortality in the process.
Amen & Goodbye is out as of April 1 via Mute Records.
Words: Steven Ward