Nilüfer Yanya writes about the in-between: the slippery space between waking and dreaming, the difference between what you think you should be feeling and what you actually feel. “I like songs that have stories and situations that you can almost catch, but you can’t quite ever catch properly,” she once said. The backdrop of her songs are mostly interior, occupied with mind games and paranoia and self-doubt. They set up emotional riddles but rarely pay them off — Yanya offers only a suggestion of resolution, nothing concrete. She packages the unknown into crisp, fluid pop songs that act like elliptical thoughts, full of not-sures and maybes and endless possibilities.
Yanya comes from a family of artists, so that ponderous territory might be in her blood. She grew up in London, with two visual artists for parents, and was immersed in a music program at school. She spent long stretches of time in a studio that her uncle owns and operates in Cornwall. That’s where she ended up writing and recording most of her debut album, seemingly more comfortable working around those that are closely tied to her. (Her sister also directs the sleek, stylish, and evocative music videos she puts out.) That safety net cradles Yanya’s vulnerable and intimate music.
Yanya’s been in the perpetual process of breaking out for a few years now, with a series of singles and EPs that gradually revealed the expansive scope of her talents. Typically, the biggest of these songs would be packaged together for a proper debut album, but Yanya sidestepped that potentiality for Miss Universe, which contains none of her previous highlights, instead opting for 12 brand-new songs, each of which sounds like an open-ended query.
Miss Universe is her first attempt at expressing herself in the long form, and Yanya has latched onto a loose concept to hang these songs around. The album is stitched together by dispatches from faux hotline WWAY HEALTH. The dystopian-bent computer service enticingly offers to wipe away all of life’s problems, giving concrete answers to questions that the songs purposefully evade. “We are here for you, we care for you, we worry about you so you don’t have to,” the service intones. But it’s clear from the jump that WWAY HEALTH is no easy out: It’s an extended warning against placing too much faith in systems to fix our problems for us, rather than looking inwards or to our community for support.
The roboticized pleasantness that Yanya adopts on these interludes acts in direct opposition to her real singing voice, which is malleable and endlessly expressive. It defaults at a deep rasp, but she uses that baseline to jump into many different singing styles, soaring and falling low and picking back up again. Take “Paralysed,” where she modulates into a different register on practically every other word. She gets a lot of mileage out of intonation, bleeding her voice into and separating it from a song with intention, providing her often skeletal arrangements with a hit of flesh.
Miss Universe is an impressively diverse collection of tracks, but most of them can be broken down to a few simple elements. There’s usually a snaking guitar line, some snapping percussion and, of course, a lot of Yanyas, always doubling back and harmonizing with themselves. She does a lot with a little. She can sweep these elements into something that sounds massive, like she does on “Angels,” or she can keep them in tightly controlled syncopation, like she does on “Heavyweight Champion Of The Year.” There’s a sense of Yanya-as-conductor on these tracks, wielding emotional swells with expertise.
The songs on Miss Universe are minimal and instinctual — there’s a shagginess to them, they flow freely. The formlessness of her songs mirror the states of mind they explore, circuitous ideas that worm around with no definitive conclusion. “This is what it feels like/ I’m not sure I feel it,” she sings on “Paradise.” When she hits on an idea that feels like it might unlock a solution, Yanya leans in hard. These tend to be the big moments on Miss Universe, when everything seems like it might suddenly fall into place: on “Baby Blu,” a pulsing dance track about moving on from love, or on “In Your Head,” a dizzyingly catchy one about accepting that you’ll never be able to figure yourself or anyone else out.
That last one is fixated on a fear of making anything too concrete: “I can do what I want/ I can feel what I feel/ Until you say it out loud/ How will I know it’s real?” she sings. Yanya doesn’t stay locked-in to any one feeling for too long. Even on the album’s most widescreen breakthrough moments, the old doubts always creep back in. Most of Miss Universe is concerned with quieter shifts, a collection of smaller, incomplete conclusions that might hint toward some greater purpose, but probably won’t. That’s the space where Yanya and her songs thrive — twirling around in a conundrum of her own making, creating music that serves as an ellipsis to life’s unanswerable questions.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Jenny Lewis’ reliably solid On The Line
• American Football’s heartsick and tender American Football
• Ex Hex’s swaggering riffer It’s Real
• Avey Tare’s kaleidoscopic Cows On Hourglass Pond
• Ibibio Sound Machine’s deep and groovy Doko Mien
• La Dispute’s sparkling wailer Panorama
• Lambchop’s meditative and sprawling This (Is What I Wanted To Tell You)
• Spiral Stairs’ rampaging rocker We Wanna Be Hyp-No-Tized
• Strand Of Oaks’ weathered and cathartic Eraserland
• Tamaryn’s gloomily pretty Dreaming In The Dark
• These New Puritans’ ominous and ornate Inside The Rose
• Mary Lattimore & Mac McCaughan’s gorgeous team-up New Rain Duets
• Mini Dresses’ dreamy but sharp Heaven Sent
• Bill MacKay’s rustic noodle Fountain Fire
• Dream Ritual’s melodically grunge-y Trips Around The Sun
• Andrew Bird’s optimistically titled My Finest Work
• Shlohmo’s apocalypse-minded The End
• Duster’s comprehensive career retrospective Capsule Losing Contact