The lights that lend Portland electro-pop duo YACHT's new album its name, See Mystery Lights, have been appearing just east of Marfa, Texas—a small town turned artists' retreat in the high West Texan desert (where both No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were partially filmed)—since at least 1957, although reports published at that time cited anecdotal accounts tracing the lights as far back as the 1800s. The lights occur at night, reportedly appearing as glowing spheres of varying colors that hover, dancing side to side, disappearing and reappearing, splitting and merging in the dark distance (the terrain over which the lights appear is, of course, both difficult to traverse and private property). In video footage posted to YouTube, they look like blurry, flickering, far-off headlights. Skeptics suggest that the lights could be mirages caused by high-altitude collisions of hot and cold air, or headlights reflecting from nearby U.S. Route 67, or naturally occurring piezoelectricity given off by quartz rocks (sort of, but not exactly, like how Wint-O-Green Life Savers spark if you bite into them). Whether you're inclined to see the lights in terms of rational, scientific explanations or as an otherworldly, supernatural and ultimately unexplainable phenomenon probably says something about how you'll react to YACHT.
That's because while YACHT's music and live show are straightforward enough—glitchy synth pop and disco funk, singing and dancing along to backing tracks—the aura created by their lyrics and extracurricular effluvia can ask rather a lot. Just how much quasi-mystical optimism can you accept?
According to their online mission statement, "YACHT is a Band, Belief System, and Business conducted by Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans of Marfa, Texas and Portland, Oregon, USA. All people are welcome to become members of YACHT." (More prosaically, YACHT began in the early 2000s as the solo electronic project of Bechtolt, who has also recorded with the Blow and other artists, and expanded to include Evans in 2008.)
The act's breakout 2007 album is called I Believe in You, Your Magic Is Real (an encouragement lifted from the late Michael Jackson's endorsement of street magician David Blaine), and its title track contains the chorus "Your magic's real, so why aren't you using it?/You could have the world for yourself/You don't ever have to worry about losing it/The magic inside of you is infinite." At live shows supporting that record, Bechtolt was prone to giving motivational sermons between songs and hugging audience members. See Mystery Lights ups the ante from an affirmation to an imperative; YACHT don't just believe—in you, in an afterlife, in West Texan will-o'-the-wisps—they want you to believe.
And what do YACHT believe exactly? The mission statement continues: "YACHT is about group consciousness. YACHT is about the individual man or woman. If you believe these assertions to be contradictory, consider the Triangle: it is both a collection of points and a shape... YACHT believes all things, hopes all things, has endured many things, and hopes to be able to endure all things... YACHT seeks to explore frontiers and to expand awareness of extraterrestrial Intelligence—which is not only real, but necessary... YACHT believes 'Free Wi Fi' is not an advertisement of services, but a political statement."
See Mystery Lights starts right in with the heavy stuff. On album opener "Ring the Bell," Bechtolt asks, over a light, tropical guitar and a steam-building beat, "Will we go to heaven, or will we go to hell?" He answers, backed by a chorus of what sounds like his own pitch-shifted voice(s), "It's my understanding that neither are real." On the next track, "The Afterlife," Evans, singing in a kind of possessed deadpan over echoing percussion, explains, "It's not a place you go/It's a place that comes to you/And it's not about who you know/Or who is in your heart." (From that mission statement: "YACHT believes in an Afterlife. YACHT does not believe in 'Heaven,' or 'Hell.'")
In the second portion of "It's Boring/You Can Live Anywhere You Want"—which follows a first part whose chorus is less Buzzcocks than it is "Nothing Ever Happens on Mars"—Evans recites a list of (oh) the places you'll go: the city, the woods, the desert, the beach, a small town, a cave, underwater. It suggests a kind of limitless, fantastic mobility unfettered by real-world problems. "We Have All We've Ever Wanted" is an ode to the internet, both its supposed dangers ("Be careful with the downloading") and, mostly, its great abundance ("Technology changed all that/Now we have all we've ever wanted").
These songs seem typical of YACHT's attitude toward mundane material concerns, an air somewhere between detached amusement and lofty disregard. In real life, Bechtolt attracted some minor controversy by admitting to using pirated audio-production software, for which he vaguely apologized but also offered some utopian futurist "stuff wants to be free" justifications (the makers of one of these pieces of software, in an open letter to Bechtolt, countered that, in fact, their labor didn't want to be free so much as it wanted to be remunerated). So maybe YACHT are not so bothered by worries about making a living or finding a place to live, which makes sense for a pair of artists who winter in Marfa and get by making designer MacBook sleeves and posing for Converse ads, but which might not be so reassuring to some listeners.
(The piracy issue and its fallout are also illustrative of another of YACHT's key traits, a kind of unguarded openness of communication that allows for and isn't afraid of mistakes but which can also sometimes seem like a kind of emptiness, a refusal to come to solid conclusions—a recent blog post contains the nonjudgmental credo "There is value in all ideas.")
Other songs on See Mystery Lights are more broadly upbeat. The back-to-back tracks that form the album's core, "Psychic City (Voodoo City)" and "Summer Song," are both outstanding, maybe the two best songs YACHT have ever done. "Psychic City," which was originally written by Rich Jensen (Sub Pop, Up Records, Clear Cut Press), is an ode to an unreal place where you "never knew what might happen in a day," where you might "fall in love every minute on the street." YACHT's take has Evans singing the lyrics over a gently swinging bass-guitar line, bubble-popping percussion modeled after an IM sound effect, and a chorus marked by hand claps and bright, open guitar chords. "Summer Song" is a love letter not just to the season, but also to DFA Records boss James Murphy, whose LCD Soundsystem took YACHT out on a profile-boosting tour in 2007 and whose label is now releasing See Mystery Lights. The song is a conscious and fairly convincing imitation-as-flattery, with hand percussion echoing over a steady rocking disco beat, a walking bass line, and synths squealing in time between the beats, and with Bechtolt and Evans uttering repetitive dance-floor commands ("Move your feet to the Summer Song").
It seems impossible that anyone could really be so optimistic about everything (and unlikely that the members of YACHT sincerely believe in triangle energy or the paranormal or whatever). Sometimes it's easier to sympathize with someone singing you their woes than it is to feel inspired by someone telling you that everything is going to be all right ("Things Are Gonna Get Easier" might be a fine song, but it doesn't actually convince me of anything).
And yet, listening to See Mystery Lights, by far YACHT's finest and poppiest record to date, can make even the most hard-hearted cynic want to believe. If there's some tongue-in-cheek to YACHT's magically positive mental attitude or their stated ideals (and, I mean, their manifesto ends with the important pronouncements "YACHT will never participate in 'flame war' culture. YACHT is not a cult"), then it's just enough to make them seem goofy and human, and the delivery is still heartfelt enough to hit its mark. Hell, even if you're a serious doubter, it's still a fun album. You don't have to believe in the lights to like how they look.