AUGUST: Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind

This blog is about music. What we like. What we listen to. What we want others to hear about. But perhaps it’s also an advertisement of who we are, too. So this is a post about the next – striking, interesting, challenging – album of the month, but it’s also a bit more than that. 

As Camus said, life is a sum of all your choices, and as human beings we are often predisposed to taking the easy route. Whether that’s professionally, personally, in our cultural spaces, online, we often surround ourselves with things that look and sound like us, subconsciously or otherwise. As a white, straight middle-class and middle-aged guy, my cultural tastes aren’t completely blinkered, but it’s fair to say that a lot of the music I like is by people that are quite like me. But recent events have certainly made me look at that more closely and what I move towards naturally, and so it’s a chance to think about what I listen to, what I watch, and what that says about me and who I am. It’s a conversation we should all be having with ourselves.  

When we think about music, and what we’ve written about on this blog, I’ve looked at my choices of music, especially albums of the month I’ve nominated (around 30 since we started) and it’s been a sobering how vanilla I’ve been. Yes, I love hip-hop, I like disco, soul, r’n’b, electronic music – all genres and scenes that are built on or by people of colour. And many things I love in those scenes and that I listen to, love, recommend, highlight are by those artists. Off the top of my head: Prince, Sampha, Donna Summer, Sylvester, Gwen MacRae, Michael Kiwanuka, N.E.R.D., Little Simz, Farley Jackmaster Funk, De La Soul, Loletta Holloway, Derrick May, Frankie Knuckles, Honey Dijon, Jay-Z, Stevie Wonder, Jocelyn Brown, Whitney Houston, Dizzee, Tribe, Beyonce, Bobby Womack, Carl Cox, Chaka Khan… this list is actually huge when I look at it in my collection. But…. In this blog, it’s only Michael Kiwanuka (twice), N.E.R.D. and Sampha that I’ve nominated as my pick, against a much wider and diverse range of artists that have been nominated. And, here we are. 

I therefore could’ve chosen some easy hits: albums I knew I’d have liked by artists I already knew (I’ve nominated Roisin, Hot Chip, LCD Soundsystem, John Grant after all). And when Everything Everything had an album out this month, it was an obvious choice. But then what would I be saying with that? What would we be opening our minds to? What challenge would that be? I realised that making unconscious, simple choices is what structural inequality is built on. No, choosing an album by people that look like me is hardly equivalent to saying ‘All Lives Matter’, but it’s important to question choices and do something you wouldn’t normally do. 

This what brought me to Yves Tumor. They’re an artist that I knew almost nothing of, bar some appearances on ‘albums to watch’ or ‘this is out this year’ lists for 2020, but I wasn’t familiar with their music. Which is why it’s a good choice because it’s fresh, and something to approach without any context for us, unusual as it is. Heaven of a Tortured Mind is actually Yves’ fourth album, and it’s the creation of Shane Bowie (though even that isn’t ‘confirmed’ as their name). Reading into their music history it’s just part of a narrative of a rootless, shapeshifting journey from Tennessee to perhaps Berlin, or LA, or Italy (again, no one is ever sure where they’re living, and that’s how they want it). But first and foremost, musically, it’s absolutely not playing to the crowd or expectation. It’s been a while since I’ve heard an album that doesn’t really sound – as a whole – like anything else I have heard. Of course there are touchstones in many of the tracks and familiar links to artists we know, but it’s something different.

Listening to it a few times, despite the inability to pin down any one genre, there is real groove and melody to Heaven To A Tortured Mind. In amongst the noise, the echo, reverb, distortion, the detuned notes and general off-kilter-ness of it all, it’s clear that Tumor is a musician, and a talented one. But it comes in a box that is murky and unvarnished, and takes some time to go from first impression to working out how you feel about the album. And yet there are some absolutely accessible and memorable tracks that get to you immediately. The soaring brass and heavy percussive march of Gospel For A New Century, Kerosene!’s trading of Tumor and Diana Gordon’s vocals with rasping guitar licks that trade Prince as much as they do lyrically with words of desire and lust. Hasdallen Lights melds strings and low, funk bass, while Romanticist’s languid groove and shuffling percussion burn like the ashen embers of modern R’n’B, at once merging into Dream Palette’s almost punky shout. There’s so much genre-twisting, yet in isolation what seems like a collection of loose tracks, somehow takes on a more obvious form as a single, linear journey, finishing with the quasi-70s soul licks of A Greater Love. It’s as intriguing as it is confounding. And after a good number of listens, it’s still not entirely clear what to make of it. But searching for new musical horizons isn’t meant to be smooth or simple. 

And while this isn’t instantly accessible, chart-intended music, it is also the most accessible of the quartet of albums so far. Stretching out through ambient, industrial, noise-making and only sparingly using vocals, Tumor was far more suited to Warp’s aesthetic on previous work, where 9 or 10-minute tracks were as common as 3-minute efforts. This latest appears another evolution, intended or otherwise, to tentatively embrace convention, even if it’s small steps. And for all the influences and supposed touchstones (think Prince, of course, 70s soul, 90s shoegaze and industrial sounds, TV On The Radio, as well as contemporaries such as Moses Sumney’s inventive soundscapes or even Tame Impala’s psychedelic, feedback laden guitars) they feel very much Yves’s own universe. The other take I instantly had of the album is that there’s so many great hooks and melodies that I could see every one of the tracks as the backing to a great hip-hop tune, also always a good sign of pretty brilliant musicianship.

Then there are the videos. Since Yves Tumour came to being, the visual impact has been as important as the sonic. If you only watched Gospel For A New Century, with its lucifer figure, writing semi-naked bodies, with Hades reimagined as a sort of dystopian nightclub, that would only half describe its first time sensual assault. Throughout their career, the visual aspect has been a striking accompaniment to the music. 2019’s Lifetime had Tumor as a beaded, chokered, horned being, then sporting a Mohican. Licking An Orchid was a discomforting infra-red lament with juddering camerawork. In one of their more conventional works, Noid has them as an arrested black person on the street, an enduring and powerful image, but is just as striking as their more otherworldly imagery. In every aspect of their creative life, it feels like it’s an aspect them assume total control of. Perhaps its because the rest of their life remains much of a mystery. Famously aloof – conducting video interviews only showing the top of their head, then switching the camera off, or refusing to confirm where they’re living or working – they’d rather focus on artistry than themselves. But having worked under a raft of pseudonyms, life may be easier when you have nothing to focus on but the creative. 

What’s abundantly clear is there aren’t many around like them, not least at the forefront of music. And this can only be celebrated, even if what Yves Tumor’s meant to be and what their music is meant to mean remains deliberately ambiguous, intentionally unlinear. Gone with physical music’s domination are the days of what we can expect, what genres people should make, and how an album should be constructed. But with music so obsessed with the single, the shuffle, the 3-minute quantised, compressed pop commodity or hip-hop banger, it’s good to know that not everyone subscribes to this. If everything Tumor does isn’t easily digestible, then let’s celebrate that. 

7 comments

  1. nolankane706

    First and foremost I would to give respect to brother Guy on picking what is arguably his most risky album selection since we started doing the blog.

    Until brother Guy’s intro I’d never heard of Yves Tumor, so my view is fresh with no previous opinions. There’s a machine gun of influences throughout this album. With an underlay of hip hop-esk beats I initially got influences of Prince, MGMT, Tame Impala and Bloc Party. On further reflection you could argue that Yves Tumor could be an alternative version of Andre 3000.

    I’ve found there there are do’s and don’t to this album. For me it sounds fantastic in my headphones, less impressive in the car and gets turned off when I put it on whilst making dinner. As headphones have been the chosen option for this album I’ve payed more attention to the lyrics than I did whilst listening int he car and they’re solid on most occasions.

    The few reviews I’ve read on this album mention how it’s not polished. I’m not sure I agree with that. I actually think it’s the opposite. It’s different, but different isn’t a bad thing if you do it right. This album was done right. It’s an impressive album that I get into more with every listen. My favourite tracks seems to change with each listen, at the time of writing this it’s ‘Strawberry Privilege’.

    This album doesn’t complete without fault for me. The more I listen to it the more I question the place of ‘Medicine Burn’ on this album. It feels like a bump in the road on what over all is an album that flows very well. Perhaps that’s why it’s there?

    • whyohwhyohwhy

      Some really interesting points Nolan. I definitely don’t subscribe to the unpolished comments either. I think the album’s production is both intended and really really dense and textured. Yes, there’s ‘noise’ elements to it but it’s all pretty carefully placed, from the feedback and fuzz to the layers of vocals or distorted words. I think they’ve really gone to town, and it feels a reflection of the absolute control of the artist.

      It’s definitely not without its faults, but it feels like an album made to be a difficult, challenging listen and that’s a pretty ballsy move.

  2. misterstory

    Well … wow … there’s a lot to talk about isn’t there? It’s not like we’ll be stuck for conversation points with this album. I’ll most likely collect my thoughts and feelings in rapid fire bullet points else I’ll loose them all in the meanderings of my mind.

    – While this is no claim to fame, or claim to expertise or encyclopedic knowledge, I think that I am probably the most attuned to ‘noise’ out of the four of us. My post-punk / metal / experimental leanings are something that rarely come in useful with our AOTMs. I have been aware of Yves Tumor and the music they make for a while … but only really in a passing way. Pitchfork has repeatedly told me to listen to his last 3 albums but even I found that them too dense and demanding of attention when perhaps that attention was not available in my life. The reason I am saying this is that with this album, I didn’t find this as challenging as Guy’s review suggests. This feels like it lives within the noisy weirdness of my musical tastes.

    – To Nolan’s point … my experience with this album has suffered from the fact that my family don’t share my love of noisy weirdness. 1 long day at work for Mrs. Story and I + 2x chatty children + cooking noise + Heaven To A Tortured Mind = Too Much.

    – I’ve had exactly the same experience as Nolan. This is a headphones album. My first listen was on a 1 hr walk alone, I got through the album almost twice … and freaking loved it. It felt short and accessible and exciting. When ever I listen alone, on headphones, I feel the same … but it demands and needs this solitude in my opinion. Therefore it’s probably not had as much air play as other AOTM.

    – We often as the questions (i) What is this? (ii) And who is it for? I am not sure why we keep asking this as we rarely answer it. Again, with this album the answers are … (i) I don’t know (ii) I don’t know but I’d love to meet them.

    – To make an attempt to answer the first question, I think this is quite clearly a soul / funk album. Ok, it’s bejewelled in all sorts of sonic experimentation but when it ‘resolves’ it always returns to the soul/funk core. Melody and/or grove are always around the corner. What I hear in this Album is someone that truly understands noise. I am going to use Sonic Youth as an unusual comparison here. Sonic Youth know the limits of their audiences tolerance and love of noise. Their most impactful tracks marry discordant noise with beautiful melodic counterpoint. They push the limits of tolerance with the former but always return the listener, safe and unharmed to the latter. Yves Tumor has mastered this on this album. In this characteristic, this album is a work of well studied genius.

    – The balance of noise with accessibility is made throughout each track but also throughout the album as a whole. The gargantuanly noisy (but unashamed) ear worm of an opener signposts the listener to what is coming but gives them respite with what is essentially a catchy pop-track. Then Medicine Burn crashes headlong into your face. But Yves Tumor knows this is a challenging listen and provides release with a more infectious, shorter listen (Identity Trade) … we’re now 3, pretty noisy, challenging tracks in … and to some ears, this may have been an assault compared to their musical norm. For this reason the beautiful gift of Kerosene is delivered, releasing the pressure, resolving the noise. It provides a big, funky, sexy slab of magic, pure-guitar-hero, squealing solos matched only by the female vocal solo. It’s pure, unadulterated smut and I fucking love it. I think the rest of the album is balanced in a similar way. Not in a tit-for-tat, 1x noisy track + 1x accessible track, but in a much more intelligent manner that means YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS ALBUM AS A WHOLE!

    – You’re kept on your toes constantly. Even on repeated listens you forgot some of the constantly cool shit that they are doing. ‘oh I totally forgot that they did that Ariel Pink thing there …oh, but with power cords …. and I forgot that Dream Palette starts with a 45 second musical firework show!’

    – Some reviews have suggested the album loses it’s way. I don’t agree. I think it’s incredibly well balanced. But you only discover this on repeated listens on repeat. It’s so short and punchy when taken as a whole. It actually feels long and unwieldy when broken into constituent parts. I love the 2nd half of the album. I think it’s cool AF. Super Stars is an awesome track and flows perfectly into the 2 tracks that follow-it where they show off their post-punk love and knowledge (do they sound like Robert Smith on Folie Imposee or is just me!?).

    – In terms of influences … I’ve tried to resist the temptation to describe this in terms of who it sounds like … as it sounds like nobody (and everybody).

    – For the avoidance of doubt, I love this and I think Yves Tumos is a right clever little musical monster.

    • whyohwhyohwhy

      Some great points here Joey. And I am into most of them.

      I certainly don’t have the noise history you do, but I do know a few of those reference points and I do get that. it’s the ability to fill up the frequencies and really challenge the listener with wave upon wave of sound washing over you, sometimes abrasive, angry, difficult, and sometimes more symphonic, but definitely no spaces or let up. That album definitely is in the same bracket even if it trades on soul and funk for its bloodline.

      It’s definitely an album that needs attention. You can’t half-listen, in fact if you do you really find it’s not easy at all. You have to commit. Which means you won’t always enjoy the experience, even if you have cans on, and you’re not just tuned into it at that point, it could really rub the wrong way. Again, this isn’t a criticism as much as an observation. Again, it’s not a simple listen. I admire that, even if I don’t love it every time I encounter it.

      I so SO agree with the pressure / release thing, for sure. That opener, then the almost unappealing build-up from Medicine Burn, then the sweet release of Kerosene – David, I think you’re not miles from Joey or my experience, it has just grated too much for you – it’s a really intriguing listen, that really hits the pressure points. I find myself almost breathing a bit sigh out when it’s done.

      I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it. It’s definitely a pretty singular work. It’s at times *really* funky, but in a very non-conformist way. And this isn’t because I think I ‘need’ to say it’s good because of all the plaudits. It’s definitely good. I’m not sure it’s great. It’s absolutely not boring, or bland, or a formula. I think we can all agree on that. It’s the sound of someone absolutely making the music they want to. I’m all over that.

  3. David Allison

    Boy, are we gonna have a ding dong over this album!

    I’ve been struggling with it from Day 1. I thought the problem was that I wasn’t listening to it enough, or giving it some real headphones time. Well know I’ve been doing that, it’s only made it worse. I feel like it has a whole heap of problems.

    First things first. Tumor is clearly a real talent. Their vibe, their vocals and – in particular – their guitar work is bloody great. It’s a singular vision and it feels really genuine. But then that’s where my praise runs out. Because this record feels half-baked as fuck. What in particular? I’ll tell you what – the actual songs. They’re all built around small minor grooves that go absolutely nowhere. Tumor builds a wall of sound – loops, screeching guitar, wailing vocals, breakdowns to bass and drums, all of those tricks, but they never SEND me anywhere. They’re stuck within themselves in their own universes. You have to fall right in there to get them, and I just haven’t managed it.

    It doesn’t help that the record is sequenced so badly. The opener, Gospel for A New Century, is a decent intro to the album, but the next two tracks are pointless dirges that are amongst the weakest on the whole album. You’re so relieved when Kerosene starts, which is absolutely the best song on the album, but by then they’d squandered my goodwill quite a bit. Super Stars and Strawberry Privilege are both really good – and if the album was as good as those two songs and Kerosene, then I’d be writing a very different review. But it isn’t. There are too many songs that run along in the same aimless groove, going nowhere. You mention The Cure. Tumor could only dream of writing a song as good as anything by The Cure.

    So yes, I’m scratching my head. I’m looking at the stellar reviews, the gushing Pitchfork. And then I remembered Ariel Pink. And how everyone went mad for him, and I remember having the same experience and thinking – what, THIS is it? Now, it’s not fair to say that Tumor is Ariel Pink – there’s a lot more sincerity and artistry in Tumor’s work. But I do wonder if there is a bit smoke and mirrors too, hiding some fairly workaday jams in a mish mash of art-rock tropes. Does anyone listen to Ariel Pink anymore? I sure don’t.

    The problem, of course, might be me. I found myself thinking today as I was driving along listening to this – fuck, maybe this is just speaking to an entirely different demographic of people that I no longer am part of. Maybe that’s it. But I’m as art-rock as they get. Talking Heads, TV On The Radio, anything influenced by Bowie – mainline it to me! But for me, Tumor is missing something essential. I was also thinking of another ‘post-racial’ (awful phrase, I know) black artist: Twin Shadow. Remember him, brothers? Joey, we used to love his first album. He was working in this field too, with perhaps more an electro feel. But do you what he had? He had the fucking TUNES. I missed them on this record, interesting thought it is.

    • whyohwhyohwhy

      First things first. I had totally forgotten Ariel Pink existed. Checked his music out again. Remembered why i did. I’m not sure this is in the same bracket, but I get the hype ‘eh’? part of that.

      I think what I would say here David, is I totally get where you’re coming from. I have been there at times myself. it’s an album that I suspect doesn’t have many ‘maybes’, more WOAH or WTF. It reallty skirts that line and there’s been times where I’ve really felt I’m not sure about it *at all*. But it did click. It won’t for everyone, no matter how much you may want it do. It’s not the emperor’s new clothes here, though. As Joey says, it’s a bedrock of funk/soul, wrapped up in all sorts of layers. And I fully get the hip-hop angle, that so many of these tracks would rock as the building blocks for amazing flows.

      I’m not sure I am on board with the shorter songs the same way. In fact, there’s nothing worse than songs that go on over their time limit. Echoing what I’d said before, I don’t think anything’s unfinished here, it’s all intended, programmed. You may disagree with the programming but I don’t think there’s a step where Tumor doesn’t want it. But it’s not going to be easy to wrap yourself around either, so it’s all good.

      PS. TWIN SHADOW. YES!

  4. whyohwhyohwhy

    Some more thoughts from me on this. I really have enjoyed listening to this album, as challenging as it is. It’s been a long time since I’ve found an LP (yes, yes) that’s really knocked my sideways like this has, musically. Things are so binary often – and by our age we all know ourselves pretty well – but this was somewhat of a different proposition altogether. For one, it careers around the genres from start to finish, so you can’t just go ‘this isn’t a great r’n’b album’ or ‘I’ve heard better pop albums than this’ because it never settles. Which means – unless you’re pretty much dead on the inside – you will come back as there’s songs that draw you in, even if you can’t go with the whole. In isolation, given, say only Greater Love, or Dream Palette, or Asteroid Blues, you’d be pretty fucking shocked when you heard the rest of the album. And I truly do like that.

    And we all have genre-bending artists – Bowie, Prince, the true leaders in that – but not have I heard something as rich or vibrant or with sheer ‘wtf-ery’ as this. And I don’t even know if I’ll still feel the same way next month, or next week, let alone next year. Perhaps when I get a more accessible album or two I’ll just think ‘naah, I’m not quite in the headspace for this’ but it has definitely left a mark on me.

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