“I’m not dancing,” Tirzah Mastin proclaimed on her debut EP: “I’m fighting.” That might have come as a surprise, because the music—produced by Mica Levi and released on the Hot Chip-affiliated Greco Roman label, no stranger to club culture—sounded more or less like dance music, albeit a rough-hewn variant of house at its most minimalist and homespun. But in the years that followed, the two collaborators largely abandoned anything approaching dance-music convention—indeed, convention of any kind. On 2018’s Devotion and 2021’s Colourgrade, they delved instead into the smoky textures of Tirzah’s voice, the unnerving intimacy of her lyrics, and Levi’s tenderly gothic production. Those records sublimated the idea of struggle into a battle with form itself. They bristled with broken rhythms, bent notes, and flat expanses of empty space. Tirzah’s new album—once again produced by Levi—has been billed, loosely, as a return to the club, but take that with a grain of salt: It is the most challenging and pugilistic record of her career. If she was fighting before, this sounds like all-out war.
The music that Tirzah and Levi make together has always been stripped down, even austere. By Colourgrade, it had evolved into an arte povera version of R&B—an almost sculptural assemblage of splintered drumsticks, metallic lumps, and Windex rainbows streaked across dusty glass. But their new record takes that asceticism to new extremes. Colourgrade was an outgrowth of Tirzah’s live shows with Levi and Coby Sey, and for all its restraint, it moved with the spontaneity of friends in conversation; its empty spaces signaled an openness waiting to be filled. (“We made life, it’s beating,” she sang on “Beating,” marveling at the miracle of procreation.) The world of trip9love…???, in contrast, is cramped and claustrophobic. Hammered out on a watery, out-of-tune piano and hard-scrabble drum machine, it sounds like the artists might have holed up in an attic crawlspace, armed with just an iPad and the gnarliest tube-amp plugin they could find. Levi called Colourgrade “sort of unpolished,” but trip9love…???, crusted with distortion, is flat-out damaged, a minefield of fitful rhythms and rain-filled craters.
The musicians have said that they wanted the album to feel like one long song, and in many ways it does. Track after track features the same somber piano, the same overdriven drum machine. Not just the same drums, but the very same beat. It’s a curious pattern, slow and lumbering: brittle trap hi-hats, battered snares, a kick drum ominously shifting its weight. But Tirzah and Levi’s generous vision allows them to wring considerable variety out of this simple setup. (Perhaps it’s because the EQ changes slightly from song to song, but it took me a dozen or more listens before I realized that the drum programming is the same across the entire album.) The tone of the piano doesn’t change much either; it’s cloaked in echo and distance, like an upright discovered at the bottom of an empty well. Sometimes they cut up dissonant phrases and heap them in soggy layers; sometimes a single figure repeats without variation for the duration of the song, like a condemned soul resigned to its fate. The two elements create an unsettling contrast. The piano is distant and mournful, while the drums are confrontational, in your face, charged with latent violence. One broods while the other lashes out.
In between, Tirzah might be Atlas with the world on her back, serenely shouldering the weight of that heavy, heavy music. Her voice is nestled low in the mix, which has the effect of making you lean in close, and it is as beautiful as ever—soft, smoky, elegant but unshowy. She takes a gestural approach to her melodic lines, tracing them over and over, finding small variations in nimble melismatic trills and accidentals. She has a hypnotist’s talent for drawing out her words—she stretches the seven meager syllables of “Smile ’cause you’re right here with me” over the span of seven sprawling bars—and she favors mantra-like melodies that have the familiar cadence of speech, patiently laying out short, choppy phrases as though retracing her steps, looking for something she has lost. “Me there/Easy/Bathing/Heated,” she muses in “he made,” her voice rising and falling in pitch: “Deep rooted/He’s patient/He made/Me late.”
The actual subjects of these songs are rarely clear. But the beauty of Tirzah’s voice, and the ease of her delivery, stand at odds with the undercurrent of sorrow in her songwriting. It frequently sounds like she is facing down demons. In “Promises,” she muses about finding safety and comfort in a relationship before driving home a chorus infused with the dreary realism of a business transaction. “u all the time” resembles the interior monologue of someone lying awake at night, seething over an unhealthy relationship: “Taking u back/taking ur crap/Pieces of time/Counting mistakes/Keeping receipts.” Some tracks, like “2 D I C U V,” scan as love songs, but even the love songs are shot through with ambivalence, warm-hearted lyrics offset by chilly dissonance.
trip9love…??? is an audacious gambit: a theme and variations that worry away at its material like a dog gnaws a bone. Yet nestled within this coiled, feral sound is some of the loveliest music that Tirzah has yet written—like the beatless “their love,” which might be a tribute to all the doomed relationships in the world. “Their love/Only a dream you know/They love they lose,” she sings, her voice imbued with impossible grace, as the piano trickles like water down the drain. The anguish is exquisite. trip9love…??? is tender as a bruise, the kind of bruise you press down on now and again, just to confirm that it still hurts—and to take secret pleasure in the ache.
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