Nilüfer Yanya’s Steely Mask

I’ve been retreating since the start of the new year. Part of it comes down to logistics (I’m moving to another country in just a few weeks) and part of it comes down to necessity (long covid attacks my stamina like a slasher in a horror film). But I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to a bit of shell shock from 2022. It turned out to be an immensely difficult year, not least of which for health crises that included losing a friend unexpectedly and watching another suffer a mini-stroke at the age of 38.

In fact, 2022 came to be such an emotionally wrenching year that I haven’t had the capacity for feeling much of anything since it ended. That deadening has resounded in many a lyric echoing in the cavern of my mind: “My spirit is dragging/ It’s been sleeping enough” (Flock of Dimes’ “Two“); “All my love was down in a frozen ground” (Bon Iver’s “Re: Stacks“); “‘Cause I’ve been waiting for my life to begin/ For someone to light up my heart again (Weyes Blood’s “Hearts Aglow“). I’m aware of the possibility of another way of being—a warmer, more connective way—but I can’t quite get there right now.

No, instead my listening habits have tunneled toward one artist whose benumbed mask mirrors my own: the English singer-songwriter Nilüfer Yanya. I’ve been a fan since she released her stellar debut EP Small Crimes in 2016, which boasted two original songs and two remixes. It was the latter I kept returning to. “Smile Crimes (Bullion Remix)” dresses a hushed, guitar-laced song in a skin of slinky, Caribbean glitch-pop, while “Keep on Calling (Vasco Remix)” sheds the original’s electric guitar for an electro-dub frame brimming with thick synths. Both are magnetic.

This time, it’s Yanya’s 2021 full-length album PAINLESS that feels particularly palatable. PAINLESS radiates from an evident wound, but Yanya blunts the reality of her true hurt. Both her voice and her lyrics suggest a feigned insouciance. “So maybe/ I can’t care too much/ I can’t clean this up,” she sings on “midnight sun,” her deeper register doing an excellent job of making it seem like no big deal. (“It’s just a flesh wound.”) But PAINLESS is all bluster—the music drops the mask. The initial airy acoustic guitar on “midnight sun” gives way to an electric guitar that overtakes her voice, confessing through its fuzzy bleed a different degree of pain.

Yanya’s ear was shaped largely by classical music; she studied piano for 12 years before picking up the guitar. “Every time I heard a guitar, I’d be in awe,” she told Indie Mag in 2019. Guitar has been her central instrument since Small Crimes. Where her voice strives to hide the depth of her emotion, the guitars on PAINLESS work to tell a different story. On “try,” the guitar keeps a kind of pacing, anxious time; the lengthy “trouble” sets it loose on the chorus with a distorted howl. Even in my anesthetized state, her music grazes the bruise of last year.

What I’ve come to feel most intensely on PAINLESS is the bass. It steals the show on the first two tracks: “the dealer” and “L/R.” The instrument usually has such a warm quality, but in “the dealer” it feels steely and dense. The metallic opening drums and guitar establish the frame, before the bass enters at the chorus and breaks the whole thing over its knee. It’s such a muscular bass, and it captures this rollercoaster quality full of momentum and charge and force.

I hear it as a promise. Every emotion is a moment and every experience a season. This numbness won’t last forever—the bass holds out hope for that.