Art Rock: What the Hell is it?

By Hale Melvin

What is art rock? It’s an open-ended question, but just like Justice Potter Stewart’s view of pornography, where “I know it when I see it”, I recognize a heterogenous assortment of carefully constructed sonic geographies to be worthy of that Art-Rock label.

Yeasayer is a band that is familiar with complex, stimulating music that successfully weaves different genres, oftentimes in the same song. Their latest album – Amen and Goodbye feels like a culmination and (final?) refinement of their previous work. Some things are familiar – a slightly orientalist vibe, as if you were a soldier in the French Legion wandering a Maghrebi market bazaar while on a little bit of hash and lot of Bordeaux.

However, some things are a bit different. The orchestral production, the vaguely Sgt. Pepper’s-esque aura, the radio-friendly harmonies. As of 2018, there’s no indication that Yeasayer is breaking up, but so many of the songs have a distinct emotional “finality” about them that it feels like a graceful send-off. Emphasis on graceful, like the last campfire song before bed and the inevitable morning.

The opener – Daughters of Cain is an elegant, beautiful harmony driven piece that abruptly yields to the second track – I am Chemistry, which is slightly more familiar territory, it has that middle-eastern lute-sound guitar riff close to the “front” of the sound.

By the third track – Silly Me, an unexpectedly bouncy, danceable song, you know that this album is measurably different from their previous works. Subsequent tracks, Half-Asleep and Dead Sea Scrolls are closest thing to filler-tracks on the album. Still enjoyable but lacking the kind of grandiosity or sweeping melody found on the rest of the album. That micro-trend of relative mediocrity is finished by the album highlight of Prophecy Gun. A simple, repetitive bass line begins and is slowly joined by a hypnotizing pairing of vocals, keyboard and other secondary melodies. The happy-sad emotionality of it, in all its glorious ambiguousness, is fully realized in this amazing track. Like a classic Irish wake that is half-mourning, half celebration, the beauty is in its undivided balance between the two halves. They aren’t chopped up and seperated but entirely contained within the overall structure.

Prophecy Gun also marks the midway point of the album, and is the perfect introduction to the more interesting second half.

Divine Simulacrum, Child Prodigy, and Gerson’s Whistle are all excellent tracks, but the real highlight in the later end of the second half is the triad of Uma, Cold Night, and the semi-track of Amen & Goodbye. Those three, in combination with each other, are just such a pretty, internally coherent in their respective and collective parts that the experience of the listening to it feels like a joy, a half-hidden secret that you are lucky enough to have been invited to partake in. The second of the three – Cold Night, pairs a message we can all relate to – a death/suicide of a close friend or relative that you have mixed feelings about delivers without divulging too much and is the most satisfying song on the whole album.

Finally, amen and goodbye, which isn’t so much a standalone track as it is a coda to Cold Night closes the album, and a close to the night as one would feel looking up at the stars next to a dying campfire out in the country.