REVIEW: Tirzah – Colourgrade

Tirzah Mastin’s music is built in layers and loops. A plaintive piano motif here. A jagged guitar riff there. An echoing drumbeat emerging out of nowhere. Often, her creations sound jarring at first. My initial impressions of her 2018 debut Devotion were of perplexity; this sounded like music composed by someone whose sensibilities of tune and melody seemed out of alignment. But it’s precisely the deliberately imperfect and off-kilter nature of her compositions that makes them so hypnotically affecting. My admiration of Devotion has grown from mild to major in the years following its release.

It remains to be seen whether this happens with Colourgrade. Tirzah’s sophomore record finds her life post-transformation – she’s begun a family with her long-term partner, giving birth to two children since her last album – and the subject matter here seems to focus more on familial relationships than romantic ones. Musically, we find this expressed through even more experimental means than on her previous record. Reuniting with close friends like Mica Levi and Coby Sey, the colour and texture from field recordings, found sounds and industrial beats are the integral parts of this album. The clanging metal and squeaking balloons of ‘Sleeping’, or the hiss of white noise on ‘Beating’ are illustrative of the essence of these abstract creations.

It’s an album about feeling and atmosphere; it feels very intentionally crafted to sound the way it does, and to that end it’s an interesting experience to acquaint yourself with it. But having spent a month with the album, trying to let it wash over me and to let its layers meld together, Colourgrade mostly feels as impenetrable as it did when I first heard it. I admire the approach of Tirzah, Levi et al, but this record is a real slog at times. ‘Crepuscular Rays’, a six-and-a-half minute instrumental, may be an easy target for criticism, but it’s emblematic of the problem with this record. There’s far too little to latch onto for even the most committed listener. The beats and instrumentation are so far removed from melody that they come across as mechanical and cold.

The different ingredients of ‘Recipe’ (sorry) don’t come together at all, leaving it feeling as bland (sorry again) as the first time I tasted it (I’ll stop now). The layers of ‘Sleeping’ do combine, but the end result is monotone and rather dull. And this is the issue with some of the more conventional songs as well. The thudding drone and beat combination of ‘Tectonic’ is highly promising, but it doesn’t develop into anything memorable, leaving me underwhelmed each time.

It’s the two lead singles, songs that appear at the back end of this album, that had the most impact for me. ‘Send Me’ is the highlight. It consists of a simple guitar and drum loop and a set of repetitive and cryptic lyrics, but it’s completely compelling across its four-minute runtime. And ‘Sink In’ has a similar appeal: its continual descending keyboard riff feels as though we are indeed sinking somewhere indescribable with her. Tirzah’s best music has this effect: the layers disappear without you knowing, and it engulfs you. And that’s the issue across Colourgrade. Repeated plays of the songs on Devotion made the seams of the seemingly disparate parts fade away to create a compelling whole. Here, the different parts of the finished product too often sound audibly separate.

But who knows, maybe that’s the point? And the thing with a Tirzah album is: it creeps up on you. I can’t remember when Devotion went from a strange oddity to one of my favourite records of the last few years. I’m hoping that when I revisit Colourgrade in a few months it’ll make sense to me. In the immediate wake of its release though, it leaves me cold. This admirably singular artist has made an album very intentionally for her loved ones. Maybe it just isn’t for me.

Words by Tom Burrows.

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