A showcase of excellent songwriting, the Londoner’s latest is inward-looking and consistent in its tone
Very much a rising star in guitar-based indie music, London’s Nilüfer Yanya solidified her reputation with her 2019 debut album, Miss Universe. That was a loose concept album based around the health industry, and its only real flaw was a series of interruptions in the form of satirical skits – which could easily be forgiven since the quality of the songs bookended within those interruptions was so high. A child of the 1990s, Yanya brought together the best parts of the Britpop, R&B and pop of that decade and alchemised them into one of the most promising debuts of recent years.
PAINLESS is also a showcase of excellent songwriting, but it’s more inward-looking than Miss Universe and more consistent in its tone. Its most striking feature is its heavy use of drum machines, which lurk in the background of almost every track, never letting you forget that they are there but rarely making any grand statements. In the foreground are layers of guitar and vocal harmonies. The overall effect is personal, intimate – and at times perhaps a little too close for comfort to a demo track sound.
The first sound we hear is the drum’n’bass beat that kickstarts the dealer (while the album title is stylised in all caps, the track titles use lower case throughout, adding to the low-key, intimate mood). Next we hear a guitar strummed with a hint of tremolo blur, and brought together the two sounds pleasingly call to mind some of the ravier forays of My Bloody Valentine. The drum machines are also applied cleverly in stabilise. Here, the tempo of the beat feels just a little too fast, as though the rhythm section is giving chase to the rest of the music. Yanya’s vocals throughout the verses are buried towards the back of the mix, muttering and mumbling but somehow singing beautifully and clearly at the same time. The overall effect is unsettling but beguiling. Then there’s a moment when the beat drops out and the track does indeed stabilise: everything falls into place.
company stands out because it’s the only track that does without beats, making do with a melodic jangle that more than suffices, demonstrating that Yanya’s songs are strong enough to succeed with only minimal arrangement. That same melodic jangle breaks through the beats in midnight sun, but there’s an underlying grind behind the subtle vocal harmonies and the C86 guitars – it’s lovely and moody. trouble is also very much about texture, perhaps more so than rhythm and melody, as it glides along a pleasant trip hop beat. Another highlight is belong with you, its additions of saxophone and its big, bold chorus make for a full band sound that’s very much in contrast to the bedroom pop that otherwise dominates the album.
All in all, PAINLESS is an album rich in fine songs – Yanya seems to be incapable of writing a dud track. But the overall package somehow isn’t as strong as a collection of fine songs ought to be. Perhaps it’s the arrangements. The drum machines certainly give the album a particular character, but they also take something away. The problem is that the beats are too often too relentless – they don’t drop out or shift often enough. The idea that synthetic beats only serve to sterilise is ridiculous and passé – but while they show potential for something really interesting here, they do have the effect of cooling and sterilising an otherwise warm and welcoming record.