Tirzah’s ‘Devotion’ Is Fractured R&B For The Damaged Heart

Clare Shilland

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First, a smattering of tiny lines snake across the pane, then the whole thing goes. Shattered glass is like an instrument before it’s disaster. The damage is from the pressure, the power of the impact. But the breakage, that’s all freefall — hairline fractures, tiny hurts, small moments of pain. Taken together, they read as damage. Damage, always something undesirable. But sometimes damage is part of the desire, they’re interlocked, sullen and sultry, bitter with the sweet. Damage and desire are the cornerstone of London singer Tirzah’s full-length record, Devotion, that was quietly released on Domino records last week but could well be one of the sleeper hits of this year.

Before 2018, the most anyone knew about Tirzah (Mastin) was that they wanted more. “It’s just a shame the thing’s so short,” goes the final line of a Resident Advisor review of her second, brief 2014 EP, No Romance, the follow-up to her impossibly short 2013 debut, I’m Not Dancing. These two sketches, along with a couple other two or three track offerings composed the London singer’s entire oeuvre, all released on Greco-Roman, the electronic-focused label run by Joe Goddard of Hot Chip, but all just a taste of what she could do. Each EP seemed to be wending toward something larger, looming in the distance.

Last week, that finally came into focus on Devotion, a slurry meditation on love and loneliness, as moody as wallpaper in Twin Peaks, a serene document stippled with mournful synths and sultry, bittersweet melodies. Tirzah’s raw, confessional lyrics cook in their anger and disappointment, while production from her longtime partner Mica Levi (see the scores for Jackie, Under The Skin) splits the difference between old world R&B and cutting-edge electronic beats with a kind of hushed elegance. The pair have worked together for over 17 years after meeting at the Purcell School for Young Musicians, and their internal synchronization beats throughout the record like a pulse.

Mostly, Tirzah’s focus lyrically is on the fractured relationship(s) that drift in and out of her heart, fluctuating from extreme commitment to the moody aftermath of the recently bereft. On tracks like the easy standout “Do You Know,” fairy-wing keyboard riffs mix with metallic, mechanical percussion — both courtesy of Levi, and illustrating her range — to evoke the whiplash of a heart in the throes of love, lust and abandonment.

On the record, song structure is strange and purposefully so, warped, asymmetrical verses mimic the unrequited feelings Tirzah sings about, or emphasize her heady, willful commitment to unattainable fidelity. In this world of emotional splintered piano ballads, the only pieces that fit together are jagged desire edged up against unfulfillment, the mysterious preoccupation of a woman interrupted in love. Tirzah is trained as a classical harpist, though not playing it on the album, some of the elasticity of that instrument still seems to seep into the music.

On Devotion, Tirzah joins the ranks of beautifully muted, sad songwriters who see everything in blue and disaster. Some of the songs, like “Basic Need” or “Holding On” channel dreamy and morose ‘80s vibes, but with the potential to erupt into something spectacular amid the pain, like Flashdance twenty-five years in the future. With only a single feature, the Sampha-channeling Coby Sey on the album’s searing title track, Tirzah’s voice remains the focal point throughout, even if Sey’s role as a foil here is essential to the song’s broken, tumbling cry for more.

In reality, the pain Tirzah sings about may be a distant memory, she’s partnered with a fellow musician Giles King Kwakeulati Ashong (who performs as Kwake Bass), and when she spoke to Billboard earlier this month was recently finishing up maternity leave after the birth of the couple’s daughter, Jocelyn. Perhaps her current stable underpinnings are part of what inform the darker moments, she’s able to go deeper given the distance. And album opener “Fine Again,” is as golden a promise of healing and reprieve as any of the sadder songs here.

But the moments when Devotion feels like cracked glass, a sheet kept together because of past bonds, barely able to take the pressure of the present, those are the record’s strongest points. These are feelings that so few people are adept at explaining at all, let alone setting to music, and Tirzah is fearless in tackling them. When she sings about the damage, it feels as devoted as anyone else’s love song. Proving, in the process, that commitment is not only built in the sweet moments, but also, when everything breaks.

Devotion is out now via Domino Records. Get it here.