Produced by Mica Levi, Tirzah’s debut is a compelling vision of what imperfect pop music can be—joyful in both sound and feeling precisely because both seem so out-of-step and asymmetrical.
The imperfect piece of art has a sway all its own. To some, the blemishes and dimples on a handmade ceramic bowl will always be better than the machine-made replica. The Japanese call this kind of beauty wabi-sabi; some European thinkers refer to such ineffable idiosyncrasy as “aura.” But at this point, imperfection has been perfected and mass-produced in the form of distressed jeans, faux-vintage furniture, and certain lo-fi music. Encountering something genuinely, gorgeously flawed is elusive. Tirzah Mastin’s debut album Devotion is a compelling vision of what imperfect pop music can be—joyful in both sound and feeling precisely because both seem so out-of-step and asymmetrical.
Tirzah began to hone this vision in 2013 when she released I’m Not Dancing, an EP of eccentric dance-music ballads she made with the British producer and composer Mica Levi. The EP’s title track, one of Tirzah’s defining songs, sounds as unconventional and alluring now as it did half a decade ago: Wheezing, blown-out synthesizers and rickety drum hits mingle with her quietly loud voice—so pure, so raspy, so dogged and cool all at once. It begs you to lean in closer and make sure the speakers aren’t broken. Like Jai Paul or FKA twigs, her delivery is unguarded and messy in the way someone singing alone in the shower might belt out a song. Listening to her feels somehow both private and totally casual, a peculiar sort of shared intimacy. It’s this quality that makes Devotion so particular.
Working again with Levi, who has produced all of Tirzah’s past music, she’s moved away from the bright, ramshackle club music vibe of past releases, and together, they’ve honed a sound that’s lean and almost uncomfortably close. The spare style allows the listener to really zoom in on each little detail of Tirzah’s voice—and in that space, things get pretty intense.
On the opener “Fine Again,” Tirzah takes time to savor each word she sings—elongating every little detail of the word “fine” and unlocking new timbres as she goes. But the song doesn’t move along smoothly. It starts, stops, and hiccups, tripping you up once you’re comfortable. You look to Tirzah’s vocal as an anchor, but then the vocal line gets thrown across the room, multiplied into choruses, muted, pitch-shifted, sped up, slowed down, and torn apart. Serenity arrives when one heartstopping romantic phrase—“This feels so pure this feels rare”—rings clear. This all happens in under three minutes, and it’s representative of what Devotion does well: It’s an invitation to explore the nooks and crannies of adult relationships.
Tirzah has described the album’s 11 tracks as “straight-up love songs,” which elides just how gritty, lived-in, and straight-up strange these pieces can be. On “Guilty,” there’s a guttural crunch of distorted electric guitars that’s followed up by a gobsmacking use of Auto-Tune that doesn’t smooth out Tirzah’s voice, but rather accentuates its gravelly texture and breathy impurities. It creates a sensation that feels simultaneously alien and human, recalling Levi’s work scoring the unsettling 2013 horror film Under the Skin, where she made atonal string compositions feel fleshy and organic.
That spirit of surprise comes from Levi’s desire to make sparse backdrops that free up Tirzah’s voice to explore and make mistakes. The producer’s austere technique resembles Arthur Russell’s more minimal pop experiments: The world Levi builds for Tirzah is airy and open—her piano chords and drum hits float by like a paper bag caught in a breeze. When that spare sound doesn’t congeal with Mastin’s voice, though, it can make the songs seem unfinished, listless, or both: The quiet piano ballad “Say When” sounds like a scratch take; others work hard not to be noticed, like “Do You Know,” with its circular synths and shuffling drums.
When that simplicity does shine through, it’s cutting. It all comes together on the album’s striking title track a duet with the South London artist Coby Sey. The sound of Sey’s wounded hums wrapping themselves around every weary note Tirzah sings is electric. Her blunt writing—“I just want your attention/I just want you to listen”—only makes the song even more excruciatingly emotional. Surrounding her is just a simple drum and piano loop, letting every tired, stretched-out note luxuriate in sadness. To write and sing love songs this naked and uncompromising could be taxing. But nothing about Devotion feels like a burden. Instead, it’s so personable and candid that it feels like a privilege to spend a few minutes hearing what Tirzah has to say, imperfections and all.
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