For every overnight social media celebrity, there are many more people struggling in the shadows and working under systems that aren’t designed for them to win. These shadowy systems promising success can take many forms. For Nilüfer Yanya, the British singer whose sophomore album Painless is one of the year’s strongest rock records, it took the shape of former One Direction member Louis Tomlinson.
In 2014, Tomlinson was involved in an effort to get the clearly talented Yanya involved in what The Guardian described as a “manufactured girl band.” To hear Yanya tell it to the paper, the plan was, “let’s go and pinch some young people, tell them we’re going to make a really successful group but we’re obviously going to make a lot more money than them.’” It was a “very selfish thing to do,” she says.
Luckily, Yanya avoided the trap. Her 2019 debut Miss Universe skewered wellness culture with a ‘90s scuzzy alt-rock rock sound. Her latest, Painless, continues this sonic exploration, with a jazzy and melodic post-punk sound that feels removed and passionate at the same time. It’s a personal sound, like someone trying to approach their life objectively in a diary. Any honest exploration will bring about some real feeling.
“There’s nothing out there / for you and me / I’m going nowhere / until it bleeds,” she sings on “stabilise,” a fast-paced track with propulsive guitar riffs and drums. The first track she recorded with album producer Will Archer, she has described the song as “about environments and the way they impact you, and not being able to escape your environment, taking it with you wherever you go.” Even though it’s a feeling brought on by lockdowns, there’s no explicit mention of COVID. Instead, Yanya effectively captures the feeling through music, with the propulsive track signifying the accompanying panic.
The drums often best signal where Yanya is going on a song. On “L/R,” one of the album’s best, they take on a marching rhythm. The song oscillates between talking and singing, its melodies muted and controlled. “Sometimes it feels like you’re so violent, autopilot,” she sings, recalling a life barely being lived. “Left, right, left, right,” she says, before trying to figure out how to make a lover happy. Go to the beach? Take off all your clothes? Whatever.
Several of Yanya’s songs start off in less-than-ideal situations. Situations that require an escape, or a drastic change. She gets this across sonically on “belong with you” where a riff and electronic bloops lead into her repeating the song’s title over and over again until around halfway through, when the sound explodes.
Yanya’s voice works on both slow and fast songs, detached at certain points and capturing a yearning at others. While some newer rock albums are celebrating hedonistic joy (Wet Leg), and others are wondering about our connection to an interconnected world (Arcade Fire), Yanya is taking a decidedly introspective route. It’s an album that draws from the ever-experimenting PJ Harvey and the clever vulnerability of Liz Phair.
The songs of Painless can meld together, and they can also stand out individually. Yanya creates variations on a sound and each of them is fascinating, but they are best experienced together.
David Meir Grossman is a writer living in Brooklyn. His Twitter feed is @davidgross_man.