Yeasayer have never been short on ideas. Since their 2007 debut LP, All Hour Cymbals, they’ve cherry-picked spiritual sounds and symbols from around the world, reaching for multisyllabic words and heady references. Odd Blood pushed that through more traditional pop structures, though the effortful weird remained — lyrics filtered through the voice of Fox News commentators, Celtic verse, a Colombian drug kingpin, and boxer Joe Louis. Fragrant World took the spiritual analysis to the world of science and technology. However, the spirituality of the music has faded over time, the visceral ayahuasca crows of “2080” diluted and faded into modernity. The bleeps and bloops were just as busy and self-aware as their traditional counterparts from albums past, yet without their weight.
After four years, Yeasayer return with Amen & Goodbye, eager to have it both ways. “Daughters of Cain” opens the album with chilly synths and a spectral choir, lyrically digging into religious tradition: “Are we the sons of Seth/ And the daughters of Cain/ Preparing for the flood from all the rain?” Notably, these lyrics tie into a more specific tradition than All Hour Cymbals’ harmonies and imagery, which were somehow both post-apocalyptic and ancient. “Daughters of Cain” immediately transitions into the ornate “I Am Chemistry”. The track brims with specific science in its lyrics: Keating drops “I’m digoxin from the foxglove plant” as a first line, and follows later with “A C4H10FO2P puts you on your knees.” Yet rather than pair it with the futurist baubles of their last album, they look blithely to the past, featuring another choir, grand piano, and clavichord-y synth. The juxtaposition is a strong choice, but neither that nor the metaphorical chemistry reveal much meaning. (“I say it again: I am a chemistry,” Keating offers, as if to equate himself to the poisonous chemicals he lists, perhaps, or maybe just to their knowledge — it’s unclear.)
It’s as if Yeasayer are so busy stuffing their songs with reference points and intellectual nodes that they overlook offering a clear message — anyone who’s seen the album’s amazing artwork will recognize that decision. There’s a Mark Twain dummy, an anime cutout, a pool of blood, a man throwing a spear. The cover isn’t the only thing over-jammed with messy signifiers with unclear signified concepts. Amen & Goodbye has a lot of themes, all of which add up to a vague jumble. Generally, though, that jumble pieces together the religious and scientific, a lot of compelling ideas even if they don’t gel as fully as you’d like. “I Am Chemistry” deals in poisons, and “Gerson’s Whistle” is named after the man who developed dietary-based alternative treatments for cancer. But are the two tied? It’d seem necessary, solely from the emphasis that Yeasayer put on theme.
That necessity comes in part too from the severe theatrical streak to Amen & Goodbye. Instrumental interludes drop in as if to give pause for costume changes. Keating’s vocals are twisted into character performance on “Half Asleep”. The audience is even invited in on “Child Prodigy”, a track consisting of a harpsichord performance and over a minute of clapping. They are entirely aware of the project as a whole, tying together disparate tracks like the crowded classic rock “Dead Sea Scrolls” and the spacey reverb of the closing title track.
And yet the album’s highlights might be the relative simplicities. “Silly Me” follows immediately after the wordy “I Am Chemistry”, Keating delivering a series of bouncy self-deprecations in a delightful hook. “Prophecy Gun” might have needed more than a few tracks in the recording process, but there’s a sweetness to Anand Wilder’s whispers and coos that can’t be replicated in their grander performances. When Yeasayer talk big, you want them to have big things to say. When they keep things simple, any big things they have to say seem even bigger. Unfortunately, Amen & Goodbye largely works in the realms of humongous. There could well be a clear, concise thesis buried somewhere in all that business, but it’s very difficult to pick out amidst all the signifiers.
Essential Tracks: “Silly Me”, “Prophecy Gun”