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.