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Tagging an artist as “experimental” can often serve as a warning sign, regardless of how accurate it is. It’s a term that connotes difficulty, that alerts the listener to a certain amount of work that needs to be put in to gain enjoyment, if something like “joy” is even possible. But it’s also a term that can feel like a hindrance on certain musicians, something that confines an artist to niche circles rather than placing them within the greater context of popular music that they deserve to be.
So when Yves Tumor told Pitchfork in 2017 that “I only want to make hits,” it may have been a surprising assertion from an artist whose early work hardly felt designed for the masses. “What else would I want to make?” Tumor continued. “I don’t mean in a radio sense. I don’t mean, like, Usher hits. I just mean a track or song that people constantly need to play over and over and over and over again.”
That inclination came into focus on Tumor’s third album, 2018’s Safe In The Hands Of Love, which found the mysterious artist reaching a new level of critical and commercial success. On the album, Tumor’s vocals were often held captive deep in the mix, peeking their head out from behind skittering beats and off-kilter rhythms. Tumor’s galactic talent and charisma were the star of his own work, no doubt, but their blood-pumping, organic core felt at home sharing space with his chaotic musical whims. On “Noid,” the song that most foreshadowed his musical direction, vocal assertion was balanced by batshit percussion where beauty and ugliness danced together on a razor’s edge. It’s a brilliant record, full of ideas that were not completely set on a final direction, provocative and difficult while still strangely inviting.
But on Heaven To A Tortured Mind, Tumor takes another huge step forward, and one that puts him at the forefront of musicians that can stand deftly stand in the worlds of art and pop at the same time. First single, album opener, and one of the best songs of this young year, “Gospel For A New Century” sets the table perfectly, complete with a title that signals the ambition on which the song delivers, that Tumor is out to craft monumental music. The pause during the track’s opening recalls a skipping vinyl but quickly morphs into something more lavish, highlighting the record’s interest in duality, be it the past and future, analog and digital, or peace and chaos. Meanwhile, the yearning lyrics resonate particularly in a time when everyone is isolated from the people and things that they love.
And when Tumor begins to sing, it’s a technicolor leap, captivating and almost primal in how evocative it is. The focus on voice is present throughout the album, sounding as if he heard Tunde Adebimpe’s all-timer vocal performance on “Blues From Down Here” and used it as a jumping-off point. In that same Pitchfork interview, Tumor noted at the time that “a voice is important to me. People can understand it so much more than just a cool groove. Sometimes people want to sing along to some shit.” Tumor has essentially known for years where he wanted the music to end up, and seeing it achieve a fully-realized vision is nothing short of a thrill.
Elsewhere, “Kerosene!” deserves its exclamation mark, a sort of modern take on Dark Side Of The Moon that somehow manages to do such a comparison justice. For as masterful as Tumor’s voice sounds throughout the album, appearances here from Diana Gordon or from Kelsey Lu on “Romanticist” elevate their respective numbers to places that Tumor couldn’t get on his own. Sunflower Bean’s Julia Cumming is also stellar on the highlight “Dream Palette,” a song that underscores the album’s infatuation with juxtaposition, where a sonic fireworks display cascades into competing vocals dead-set on sprawling infinitely.
As much as this is the most accessible album in Tumor’s career, it’s by no means easy. “Medicine Burn” finds the artist still pushing his audience’s buttons, with squeals and hisses and relentless percussive noise assuring listeners remain on their guard. As much as the record is stuffed with “hits,” it also doesn’t sacrifice the abrasive core of what Tumor is interested in. As an artist, Tumor thrives on provocation. And the music is just a jumping-off point for a vivid visual component that appears in music videos and live performances. When the world literally feels apocalyptic, it’s almost surprising how much comfort can be found from an artist that stares into the abyss and laughs just to hear the echo. Tumor knows that there is beauty and unity in the most unexpected places, and Heaven To A Tortured Mind feels like literally what its title suggests. It’s hard to find anything close to heaven right now in the world, but in this ideal album for right now, heaven is in every note, every syllable, and every brilliant idea that Tumor has to share. The experimental has never felt so urgent.
Heaven To A Tortured Mind is out now on Warp. Get it here.