Kishi Bashi’s 2016 album Sonderlust is a marked departure from the style of his previous two albums, and no track exemplifies this better than “Say Yeah.” In contrast to his established style of mostly solo creations constructed from voice and violin loops, the track features a distinctly synth-pop sound characteristic of the 1970s that incorporates quite a few other musicians.
“Say Yeah” opens with a chiptune-style melody that sounds like something from an early videogame. Over this base, a drum machine sets up a backbeat and a bubbly synthesizer introduces the song’s chord progression. On top of this is a sweeping string section that establishes a bittersweet nostalgia, appropriate for the lyrics (we’ll get there…).
Throughout the entire song, Kishi Bashi sings in falsetto, which paints his plea in a tender, vulnerable light. The second verse heralds the introduction of a funky syncopated bass line (played by Bram Inscore), along with a transition to real drums (Matt Chamberlain). This section of the song is eminently danceable due to the skillful production, which effortlessly blends the elements of the song to create fullness and clarity.
The track (and the album) was produced by Chris Taylor, marking the first album Kishi Bashi worked on with another producer. I think that Taylor’s contribution is evident throughout the album, including on “Say Yeah.” He supports Kishi Bashi’s exploration into the world of synthesizers and other electronic sounds by knowing how to tame the new textures and help them gel. There are enough things happening in “Say Yeah” that the track feels detailed and energetic, but the elements still fit together cohesively.
In an interview with Impose Magazine, Kishi Bashi talked about the new style of Sonderlust: “I tried to channel a lot of jazz/funk and soul music. I’ve always loved Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, and who doesn’t?” This shift in perspective is evident in the falsetto vocals throughout the track, as well as the big-sounding synth and prominent bass line. While it borrows heavily from past tradition, the track also incorporates more modern elements of songwriting.
After two verses, the song goes into a wordless section featuring a repetitive staccato melody comprised of chopped vocal samples. In an interview with NPR’s All Songs Considered, Kishi Bashi described how picking up Ableton Live broke his writer’s block on this album: “I was able to create these really exciting sounds that in turn inspired me to write songs over them.” The use of chopped vocal samples is one clear influence of Ableton on this track, along with the chiptune and drum machine.
Before discussing the upcoming chorus and flute solo, let’s take a look at the lyrics. The song implores its subject to “Say Yeah” to Kishi Bashi’s proposition, offering that he would do anything just to earn back the connection. The song, like much of the album, is about heartbreak. In a quote from promotional material for the album, Kishi Bashi says that “Touring and its accompanying lifestyle took a heavy toll on my soul and my family.” “Say Yeah” is a plea for a second chance, featuring verses like
If I was in love with you
We’d laugh the way we do
‘Cause I want to know it’s true
all of them ending in the refrain “say yeah,” and the chorus
All I want is one last chance as your lover
Maybe we’ll make it together
One last chance with each other
Blame the rain
These lyrics, to me, don’t match the overall mood of the song, which is danceable, funky, and fun. But there are elements layered in the mix that get at the heartbreak — most prominently, the string section mentioned earlier. The contrast between the lyrical and musical content of the song portrays the hurt and desperation of a desperate lover alongside the dreams and wishes they have of future bliss.
Before Kishi Bashi can sing the bit about “one last chance,” the string section introduces the melody he is about to sing. Then, his voice enters, singing its request in two-part harmony. I would consider this to be the chorus of the song, as it gets right to the point: Kishi Bashi wants to be taken back. When we reach the final verse, the instrumentation has changed. Without drums or bass, rising dissonant harmonies in the strings build throughout the verse to the song’s high point of tension.
Out of this tension explodes a flute solo, backed by the entire ensemble, including drums, bass, synth, and strings. During a few moments, even the strings can’t help but join in on the fun, as they play along with the solo. At this point we feel that perhaps the lover has Said Yeah, as marked by the energetic rhythms and colorful tone (including flutter-tongue!) of this masterpiece, credited in the liner notes to Zachary Colwell as “ripping flute solo on ‘Say Yeah’.”
The flute solo epitomizes the distinction between the “old” and “new” Kishi Bashi. It’s an instrument not played by Kishi Bashi and never featured before on his albums that takes the spotlight to tie an entire track together. Kishi Bashi is branching out and incorporating new sounds into his music. “Say Yeah” would not be “Say Yeah” without the flute solo.
Post-solo, we’re left to draw our own conclusions as Kishi Bashi once again begs for “one last chance,” though this time the post-solo glow of the orchestration is brighter and more celebratory. As Kishi Bashi repeats himself once more, the instrumentation calms down and we get a mellow conclusion featuring a little bit more flute. It’s ambiguous whether or not the plea has been successful; maybe “Say Yeah” mellows out because it got the response it wanted, or maybe it’s just given up.
“Say Yeah” is a very fun song; I whistle along with the flute solo every time I hear it. The lyrics paint a sadder and more desperate picture than the synth-pop aesthetic of the track would suggest. The contrast allows the track to carry greater emotional significance, and in particular supports the emotional arc of the song as it builds to the triumphant flute solo.