How Tirzah has made the album of the year… and how it’s like Blonde
As Devotion begins, Tirzah sings over tremulous, woozy distortion, “I’ll make you fine again,” her brittle, smoky voice drifting through you. “This is so pure, this feels rare, I just want you to know that I’m here,” the words restorative, reassuring. There’s an ache and an understanding to it. Something lived in. And listening to it is like remembering that feeling again. Like receiving that first text message or those words or hug when you need them most, that warm blood rush feeling as it fizzes up your spine.
It sets the scene for a record made up of eleven ‘straight-up love songs’, as she calls them. Songs as intimate as those relationships we’ve all lived through, the ones she’s singing about. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s an album thick with emotion but there’s a velocity to the quietness, a dizzying emotion to the understated experimentation as Tirzah sings over Mica’s brittle, deconstructed beats.
You can feel the closeness of their relationship, it comes through in the music, songs pulled together over their sixteen-year relationship, thousands of versions pruned down to these, their simplest, most intimate and vital parts. The songs they create together are these really weird but beautiful, minimalist RnB tracks. It’s the sound of being comfortable with each other – tapes hiss, baselines hiccups and feedback loops as Mica’s experimental sounds weave through Tirzah’s words until they become inseparable.
“An album that drifts dreamily through your mind; that feeling of slow-motion love, of a new relationship, of doubts and arguments…”
On ‘Gladly’, a song that captures the feeling of love so fundamentally that you feel like you’re hearing her sing it directly to the person she wrote about, she conjures up the image that captures the essence of this album. “It feels like it’s raining super slow” is the repeated refrain. And it’s that. An album that drifts dreamily through your mind; that feeling of slow-motion love, of a new relationship, of doubts and arguments but also of the all-consuming I’ll do anything for you feelings, as she sings: “But you are taking me away from all this hate/All it takes, all it takes/Is your arms, your smile.”
It’s also a record full of nuance, refusing to fall back on easy clichés as it unpicks the knotty nature of romance and relationships. And, like all the best albums, it’s an album you can put yourself in. So much so it’s like flicking through an old photo album, keeping that first card you were sent.
It’s not all easy. On the shuffling beauty of ‘Basic Need’ – the organ lapping against her vocals, ghostly voices whispering beside her – she talks of not being able to forgive, trying to move on while the title track is frank and open about what she needs: “I need all your attention / Sometimes I think that’s all I need / But most of all I want your comfort in me”. On ‘Go Now’ she tells her partner to stop raising their voice.
Raising your voice is something she never does; her soft vocals barely rising above a warm, dreamy whisper, even on sad banger ‘Holding On’ (the closest we get to the lo-fi dance of 2013’s ‘I’m Not Dancing’) where she sings “I’ll be thinking of you when you’re gone,” over the soft thuds of electronics.
“gentle waves of steel drum oscillate quietly as she tenderly sings”
There’s always hope and humility here: on the haunting atmospherics of ‘Affection’ over rumbling piano she uses the simple refrain of “You know you’re gonna make this right / Don’t be scared” to create something touching and true.
‘Say When’ is the centrepiece; gentle waves of steel drum oscillate quietly as she tenderly sings “You say you don’t know if you see this as forever / why did I let it go on so long?” before pleading with them to “say when you know”. You can hear the soul and gospel influences that she’s said her inspires her.
And, bear with me here, it’s this feel which makes Devotion so reminiscent of Blonde. On the surface they both seem really insular records, reflecting the shy and introverted personalities of the people singing. At first glance It makes both records feel soft and gentle, but scratch beyond that and you find something very real, and defiant – a belief in love mixed with a sense of realism and self-preservation. Blonde especially see loves blossom before talking of its demise – on “Pink and White“, he sings “Won’t let you down when it’s all ruined” and it could be Tirzah’s words.
But more than that it’s that both records are hard to grab on to as both have the same rich, dreamy texture, and both share that same sensation of intimacy – about love, uncertainty, and resilience – the same feelings weaving their way through the songs.
They also share shapeshifting and experimental tendencies, pushing out to the edge of their ideas without ever feeling indulgent – just listen to the structure of Nights or Ivy, which like many of the songs on Devotion, merges the distinction between verse and chorus until it’s almost imperceptible.
“being able to talk about love in a real, human way with all its this-is-all-I-ever-need beauty “
It gives both records a hazy, soft-lit mood, like a lucid dream. They pull off the magic of catching that lightning in a bottle of actually being able to talk about love in a real, human way with all its this-is-all-I-ever-need beauty and the cold sweat pain and doubts.
Devotion is that album; understated yet profound, telling you of the love you know, the love you’ve lived. A record you only realise you needed after you’ve heard it. The best record you’ll hear this year.
Buy or listen to Devotion here.