Before starting on songwriting for Yellow Ostrich's latest album, singer/guitarist Alex Schaaf moved into the band’s Brooklyn practice space and immersed himself in the study of such astronomers as Carl Sagan and Frank Drake. Keeping up his day job of digitizing people's old home films by day, Schaaf devoted the next 9 months to exploring the depths of the galaxy from a tiny windowless room, whose lighting he altered to reflect the arrival and passing of daylight each morning and night. Around the same time, Yellow Ostrich drummer/percussionist Michael Tapper ventured into the infinite in a much more literal sense by departing on a sailing trip from Mexico to Hawaii that left him out at sea for nearly a month. Borrowing its title from Sagan’s 1980 PBS series, Cosmos expands Yellow Ostrich’s intensely guitar-driven alt-rock with dreamy electronic arrangements to mirror the mood of Schaaf and Tapper’s retreats away from the everyday world.
While the album embodies a sense of both wonder and isolation, Yellow Ostrich’s refined melodies and dense yet delicate sonic textures make Cosmos as powerfully intimate as it is dynamic. “Something I really like about the Carl Sagan way of thinking is how it’s a very unironic and sincere amazement at how the world works,” says Schaaf, who began Yellow Ostrich as a solo project at age 21. “One of the main things I was thinking about in writing this album is how to take that viewpoint and bring it into real-world life,” he adds. “It’s one thing to be reading all these books and watching all these movies in a very small room, or—as Michael did—to go out and live under the stars for a while. But trying to inject that pure amazement into day-to-day living in a big city is something completely different.”
The follow-up to Yellow Ostrich’s 2012 EP Ghost, Cosmos captures that uneasy tension by merging raw guitar riffs, lush atmospherics, brain-bending electro effects, sweetly ethereal harmonies, and earnest but unsettling lyrics. Engineered by Beau Sorenson (Death Cab for Cutie, Superchunk, Sparklehorse) and mixed by Paul Kolderie (Radiohead, Pixies, Dinosaur Jr.), the album saw its inception when Schaaf sketched out skeletal versions of his songs, then brought them to Tapper to begin fleshing out beats and arrangements. Having delved into the work of early-Krautrock and 70’s synth bands while on tour the previous year, Schaaf and Tapper set to broadening their sound with locked grooves and textures inspired by artists like Neu!, Kluster, and Kraftwerk. For more help in crafting the sonics of Cosmos, Schaaf and Tapper recruited bassist Zach Rose and keyboardist/guitarist Jared van Fleet (who stepped in soon after the departure of multi-instrumentalist Jon Natchez). With Rose and van Fleet further shaping the songs and helping the band to realize their vision, the new lineup of Yellow Ostrich recorded most of Cosmos in the same rehearsal space where Schaaf was living.
Opening Cosmos with the ominous “Terrors” and closing with the hushed, hymnlike “Don’t Be Afraid,” Yellow Ostrich lace together electronic elements and organic instrumentation to build a mood that’s sometimes gloomy, sometimes euphoric, and often an inextricable mix of the two. Throughout the album, Schaaf’s fascination with Earth and beyond plays out both literally and as metaphor: there’s songs like “In the Dark” (a stark and dreamlike meditation on the journey of NASA’s Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts), as well as “Shades” (whose urgent guitar lines and frantic piano reflect the anxiety that Schaaf imagines many people felt upon seeing the first published photos of Earth and “realizing how small and insignificant we really are”). Although that fascination bears an undercurrent of lonely melancholy, Cosmos also achieves its own strange brand of bliss on songs like “How Do You Do It” (a joyfully woozy track whose bombastic chorus serves as a diatribe against self-delusion).
One of the album’s most exhilarating numbers, “Any Wonder” pairs a swirling soundscape and questioning lyrics that closely encapsulate the thematic heart of Cosmos (“I’m gonna try hard to tear it all apart/I wanna be stunned, don’t you?”). In writing “Any Wonder,” Schaaf again tapped into Carl Sagan’s careful illumination of the romantic side of science. “A lot of people have this idea that when you explain something, you take away the magic and mystery of it,” says Schaaf. “But sometimes the actual science of what happens is way more magical than any fiction we could invent on our own.”
For the Cosmos cover art, Yellow Ostrich selected a photograph by Bas Jan Ader, a Dutch artist who created a series of videos in which the force of gravity served as his main medium. An inspiration for “Things Are Fallin’” (the album’s epic penultimate track, which starts as a tenderly off-kilter ballad before shifting into a sprawling rock song and finally dissolving into eerie noise), Ader’s work also helped Yellow Ostrich tease out that elusive connection between the cosmic and the everyday. “We’re living in a time when we’re all split up into such small subcultures and everyone has their own personalized digital worlds, which can make it easy to lose touch with the basic principles that rule our lives," Schaaf says. "There’s so much that connects all of us and makes us all the same. No matter who you are, gravity’s always going to bring you down. I think there’s something really beautiful in that.”