Allow me to reintroduce Yves Tumor. Actually, allow “Gospel For A New Century” to do it.
The first song on Tumor’s new album Heaven To A Tortured Mind is a triumphal entry — the sound of royalty strutting into town with exultant swagger, flanked by a resplendent posse, with the grandeur of Prince Ali’s marching menagerie and the grit of Furiosa barreling down the Fury Road on a War Rig. In sync with a brass section ripped from an old Korean disco record, bassist Gina Ramirez and drummer Henry Schiff lock into a hip-hop beat that bounces harder than Thanos on the dribble. Soon the bass shifts into a gnarly walking melody and the blaring horns recede like pulled-back curtains, revealing Tumor, once an enigmatic electronic producer, gone full rock-star on the mic. At the chorus, the guitars come crashing in and Tumor’s voice quavers upward into Jagger-worthy come-ons: “You know I’m out my mind girl/ Don’t make this harder/ Come and light my fire, baby!” It’s hard to tell if he’s riding atop a tsunami or if he is the tsunami.
Yves Tumor has never sounded like this before. The artist born Sean Bowie once released chillwave-adjacent music under the name TEAMS — there was a collaborative EP with Star Slinger and everything — and he contributed heavily to longtime associate Mykki Blanco’s avant-rap compilation C-ORE. Along the way, there were also aggro house tracks as Bekelé Berhanu and deconstructed ambient beats under names like Shanti and Virus. Yves Tumor, his most prominent creative identity, has spanned all those touchpoints and more. Tracing his output from 2015 debut When Man Fails You past 2016 cult favorite Serpent Music and on to 2018 breakout Safe In The Hands Of Love is like watching life emerge out of nothingness, abstract sounds evolving into more concrete forms with each passing release. But even Safe In The Hands Of Love, the supposed crossover move with pop-rock singles like “Noid” and “Lifetime,” was a relatively bleary and amorphous listen.
By comparison, Heaven To A Tortured Mind is jarring and immediate — rock ‘n’ roll history refracted through the imagination of an androgynous American expat with a background in Europe’s avant-garde club scene, known to take the form of a demon in fishnets. As with Safe In The Hands Of Love, Tumor co-produced Heaven To A Tortured Mind with Justin Raisen, the LA mainstay whose work with the likes of Sky Ferreira, Angel Olsen, and Miya Folick has long skirted the edge between pop and indie rock. They teamed with core collaborators including producer-at-large Yves Rothman, “acid R&B” guitarist Heavy Mellow, French composer Sylvain Carton, Raisen’s brother and longtime collaborator Jeremiah Raisen, and several members of Ariel Pink’s band, plus pop-ins from figures like Hirakish, Kelsey Lu, Diana Gordon, Clara La San, and Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming.
That’s an eclectic crew, and they’ve come up with an eclectic sound. Heaven To A Tortured Mind reminds me of the 1970s, when the likes of David Bowie and Sly Stone and Pink Floyd and Funkadelic were carrying rock music to revolutionary, apocalyptic extremes. It reminds me of the second half of the ’90s, when artists were jumbling genres in the shadow of metropolitan cool kids like Beastie Boys and Beck. It reminds me of the shadowy internet-native pop revisionists of the 2010s, of Oneohtrix Point Never and Arca and Autre Ne Veut and the Weeknd. It sounds less like the future than the timeline bending backward into an alternate history, a better version of the darkly funky odysseys Donald Glover has been attempting in recent years.
Heaven To A Tortured Mind rarely lets up, even at its most chill. “Gospel For A New Century” quickly builds to its climax, then becomes a launchpad for “Medicine Burn,” another immaculate groove bombarded by guitar chaos, on which grotesque imagery paves the path from “I have nothing left to fear but the wilderness” to “I have nothing left to see but the wilderness.” That rolls into another noise-bombed landscape called “Identity Trade” in which sampledelic loops and skronking jazz solos fight for space and Tumor’s lyrics blur the line between death and renewal. Later, the crisp backbeat of “Romanticist” gives way to the tumultuous “Dream Palette,” the audio equivalent of a photo blurring like one of Tumor’s album covers. His falsetto and a chorus seemingly borrowed from some ’60s psych girl-group dance downward into a cavern of bass on “Strawberry Privilege.” The rhythm section becomes as much of a duet partner for Tumor as the various female voices who pop up throughout the album; drums and bass are positioned at the front of the mix, with layers of sound cycling in and out of the background like the cacophony of daily life.
If those live-action beats are Heaven To A Tortured Mind’s ever-present backbone, the album’s recurring lyrical theme is an all-consuming passion that hits just as hard. “I love you/ I hate you/ But I need you/ Adore you,” Tumor sings on the glammed-up “Super Stars.” “Romanticist” is powered by a similar compulsion: “I wanna keep you close/ Right by my side/ I swear you got me hypnotized.” The soulful Diana Gordon duet “Kerosene!” imagines if Dark Side Of The Moon was about two people in each other’s orbit, desperate to become whatever the other needs. Sometimes, as on “Folie Imposée,” love and pain become indistinguishable: “Our very own blood bath/ A spiritual war crime/ Addicted to the torment/ Our mouth wide open.” Again and again, Tumor evokes the lust that animated the earliest rock ‘n’ roll, backing it with visceral analog soundscapes that sound like they were carved out of city blocks.
I’m guessing that’s what Tumor is getting at with a title like Heaven To A Tortured Mind — that timeless notion of sexual pleasure as an enthralling vice, the fleeting relief that can become its own kind of misery. In a vacuum, blowing out such cravings into kaleidoscopic rock and soul anthems makes perfect sense. In the context of Tumor’s career, it’s shocking. If Safe In The Hands Of Love marked a daring transformation, Heaven To A Tortured Mind is infinitely more audacious. Yet in one of the many perverse contradictions that define Tumor’s output, it’s also his most approachable work by far, a move to the middle that never sounds like a compromise. On “Kerosene!” Tumor touts his own shapeshifting powers, confidently asserting, “I can be anything.” This album is the proof.
Heaven To A Tortured Mind is out 4/3 on Warp. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Thundercat’s masterful funk dispatch It Is What It Is.
• Yaeji’s exciting new mixtape WHAT WE DREW 우리가 그려왔던.
• Purity Ring’s gleaming return WOMB.
• Ashley McBryde’s country storytelling clinic Never Will.
• Sam Hunt’s first album in six years, SOUTHSIDE.
• Empress Of’s breezy I Am Your Empress Of.
• M. Ward’s Arcade Fire-assisted Migration Stories.
• Anna Burch’s retro-tinted indie-rock set If You’re Dreaming.
• Peel Dream Magazine’s sophisticated shoegaze effort Agitprop Alterna.
• Ellis’ dreamy full-length debut Born Again.
• Melkbelly’s tumultuous rocker PITH.
• English guitar virtuoso James Elkington’s second solo album Ever-Roving Eye.
• TOPS’ artfully airy indie-pop collection I Feel Alive.
• XL Recordings founder Richard Russell’s latest Everything Is Recorded album, FRIDAY FOREVER.
• Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras’ second album as tētēma, Necroscape.
• Wilma Archer’s collab-heavy A Western Circle.
• Breakout sing-rapper Rod Wave’s Pray 4 Love.