The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Album Of The Week

Reality Bites: Colourgrade By Tirzah
Kareem Ghezawi , September 30th, 2021 09:33

Our album of the week is Tirzah's 'Colourgrade', a record of love songs with teeth exposed

When I listen to Tirzah, I'm often reminded of the climactic scene from Ivan Turgenev's The Singers. On one hand, you have a technically-gifted singer wooing a pub audience with flourishes and high notes, and on the other is the reluctant shoe-gazer with the untrained voice. Long story short (or short story shorter), flashy songbird loses and soulful underdog moves some of the big Russian lads to tears with an unexpectedly moving tribute to the motherland. There is a simple idea in that story that all of Tirzah's work, and, in particular, new LP Colourgrade, reinforces. The idea that the most effective way to move people is simply by keeping it real.

Socially, being real is generally accepted to mean a lack of pretence or agenda. Artistically, while it follows the same formula, the notion is still slightly more difficult to pin down. Singing, for example, to everyone except birds, is not the natural state of the voice. Poetry is not the natural state of language, and so on, and so on. If we take the view then, that art and artifice are often interchangeable, then being 'real' (i.e., not in the business of purposefully projecting impressions) is seemingly incompatible with art, because art is arguably all about purposefully projecting impressions.

Aside from sheer visual intensity, one of the possible reasons why Jackson Pollock's art sells for so much is because the work is unencumbered by any grand design and as such weighs lighter on the audience's shoulders. We could make the argument that Pollock's lack of agenda (one critic called his work, "unorganised explosions of random energy") made the work feel more real, and subsequently more valuable. Sort of like the premium we pay for 'organic' produce.

Of all the arts, recorded music (like film), is most in danger of becoming a manufactured product, losing its sense of 'realness' the further it goes down the production queue and snowballs with other people's input. From the first creative thoughts, to paper, to the studio, to the mastering and mixing suite and then finally its transference to vinyl, each stage adding an additional degree of abstraction and re-mediation. In the end, the best a musician can do to create an impression of realness, is to make music with people they love, for people they love, and to not really give a damn about the audience while they do it. Tirzah ticks those boxes, as well as many others, on Colourgrade.

There is a refreshing intimacy to Colourgrade, almost as if the recording process simply consisted of leaving a microphone in the shower and then editing out the trickling water in the background. Like the lyrics started off as simple poems on steamed-up glass. In contrast to Tirzah's distinctively candid poetics, most of the record's production, with the exception of the guitar-drums combo of 'Send Me', or the never-ending carousel vibes of 'Sink In', feels like it comes from a darker, less innocent place. Like a void encroaching on a perfect world. In 'Beating', lovers miraculously find each other in that void, and even create life. "I found you. You found me. We made life," Tirzah half-sings as static hisses and grainy loops churn like ashy stratus clouds. The generally somber sonic palette feels like a kind of liminal space where memories swirl and swim, waiting to be plucked out.

Through the combination of the generally solemn production and Tirzah's hushed and reflective vocals, it feels like some of the memories which fuel the record have been colour-graded into monochrome, over time losing their vividness and hue. While others, like the image of her dreaming daughter in 'Sleeping', pierce the dark and pop luminously in the mind's eye. Through those emotions, Tirzah's spoken word is often lifted into daydreaming mantras whose cracks expose an undeniably bright light. That light is not immediately visible though, but instead slowly, almost warily emerges from the shadow that those dank post-grime loops cast over her airy melodies.

The record is in essence a meditation on different forms of love and the feelings they produce, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with that, the subject can often produce predictable patterns. The slow waltz between the melancholic arrangements and Tirzah's hopeful poetics gives the impression of love being found in difficult places, lending the whole record a dark fairytale kind of vibe. Aside from that main dynamic, there are also several other elements in Colourgrade that re-energise the subject and keep things moving.

First and foremost, there is a current of unpredictability that shakes things up and surprises. There is a moment in 'Beating', for example, where she interrupts her singing and casually clears her throat before picking up where she left off. Or the sudden cough toward the end of 'Crepuscular Rays'. Then there are the oscillating groans of 'Crepuscular Rays' itself that sound like a kind of new-age vocal therapy designed to flush anxiety out of your system. These moments, which can initially seem disjointed, actually play an important role for the musical ecosystem. The weird soundscape of 'Crepuscular Rays' amplifies the stark minimalist beauty of its neighbours 'Sleeping' and 'Send Me'. Working in much the same way, the interaction between the dissonant soundscape of 'Colourgrade' and the sensual follow-up 'Tectonic' creates a varied topography that keeps the record a safe distance away from adjectives like 'flat' or 'monotone'. Then there is the inclusion of the real-life noises that add to the record's honesty and, in turn, its sense of realness. In the general playfulness, the rough moments as well as the smooth, it is difficult not to see traces of friend and long-time collaborator Mica Levi here. Those elements season the record with just the right amount of kookiness that make it offbeat, at the same time as accessible.

Aside from the branching off into unexpected sonic territory, there is also the ambiguity of the lyrics which complicate what would otherwise be a very straightforward narrative. In 'Tectonic', for example, Tirzah repeats in a monotone voice, "When you touch me, I leave my body. Instinct takes place." This could read both as, 'I must detach myself from my physical body in order to bear being intimate with this person', or that 'intimacy with this person causes me to lose myself in a disembodied euphoria'. The deadpan delivery of the line further deepens the ambiguity. If the vocals bore any trace of emotion, Tirzah's true stance would be revealed, but that would make Colourgrade less interesting.

Much like her previous work, the imperfections, leftfield leanings, and laidback nuances of the lo-fi aesthetic on Colourgrade demonstrate that modern love songs can hit places you never thought they had the integrity to ever reach. That you can have one foot in the underground and one foot in the mainstream, and appeal to both. That love songs can come from a quiet, reflective inner space and still hit harder than any show-stopping power ballad. In Colourgrade, Tirzah draws together fragments of big feelings – and, like the underdog in The Singers, doesn't force-feed them. Like a flower dispersing seeds, she lets them drift and settle where they may.