In an accelerated music industry, artists seem to feel the demand to release new tunes as frequently as possible. All the time, one after another. EP after EP after EP. You can see this everywhere: from the three records Future put out in 2017, to the growing prevalence of ‘loosies’, to the countless stopgap mixtapes put out by rappers as they prime their next major label full-length.
Of course, there are a few anomalies. One of them is British artist Tirzah, whose debut album Devotion is a breath of fresh air – both in the context of its release and how it sounds. To give a backstory: her first EP I’m Not Dancing was released five years ago, practically two decades in current industry years. Tirzah’s slinky lo-fi beats found a footing back then, and she was a celebrated “one to watch”. You can imagine the pressure of releasing a debut could’ve grown year on year. And so, since Tirzah resurfaced for just a few releases in the interim, it makes Devotion all the more special.
Though billed as a solo album, Devotion is the result of a 16-year working relationship with the lauded producer Mica Levi. You’ll probably know Levi for her soundtrack work: she composed the official scores for Under The Skin and Jackie, the latter of which received an Oscar nomination. But these are mood-pieces – looming space shuttle ambience for Under The Skin, slow classical mourning on Jackie – and are far away from her work with Tirzah. Instead Levi’s sparse style is reinterpreted through gritty electronic music that feels intimate and lightly kaleidoscopic.
The pair met when studying at Purcell music school in northwest London. At first Tirzah played the harp. Later, after meeting Levi (who played the viola), they started recording songs in the music tech room. The songs on Devotion span years and one of them, “Go Now”, was the product of these early recording sessions – albeit as a different iteration and not the slick multi-layered R&B number that lives on in this album. It’s a testament to the vision and attachment behind these songs that Tirzah and Levi have been reworking them for years, giving facelifts until the tone felt right.
The press materials for Devotion describe it as “a collection of downtempo love-songs laced with romance and lust, melancholy and desire.” In practice, this puts Tirzah’s voice to great use – pitch-shifting, oozing with low-key hooks, quietly oscillating to illustrate the changing emotion associated with a specific kind of loyalty. Words are rolled around; phrases repeated. The production value here makes the longing lilt on “Holding On” feel like a soft collision with whatever’s going on in Tirzah’s head. “Maybe it’s stupid and I know myself, but I’m hoping, because I want nothing else… don’t want to change, don’t want to change what you do to me.”
Make no mistake: Devotion is a pop album. The strength in each chorus or repeated phrase plays a huge part in that. But it’s also imperfect. Or at least it is in the sense that it doesn’t neatly fit into the major label A&R definition of what a pop record should sound like. As a heavily minimal record, with lots of space to breathe and not far adrift from the pop auteur Arthur Russell or downtempo club music, it’s a unique listen. It’s also one of the most easily digestible, at 11 songs. In fact it almost begs you to come back again and again and again, the allure being that each listen will uncover another miniature flourish – a piece of the record’s puzzle.
Insofar as musicians feed more new music into the endless stream of new sounds, spending time with a new album also feels increasingly difficult. By the time you end one playback, a new release has already been teased on Instagram (or in the case of The 1975, announced before they’ve even put out their upcoming album). Or some 20-track album is just so unjustifiably long that the process of listening feels laborious, a dense wade through the artist’s journey toward jacking up their streaming numbers. But Tirzah does none of this: she doesn’t use Instagram (well, she has two posts, but that’s it). Her album is comparatively short. Given that she also works as a print designer by day, has a given birth to a child and that the road to Devotion has been a long one, there’s the sense that her music is pure artistic process – something that comes through in how complete and compelling this album is.
In a way, Devotion is almost a sketchbook: an array of ideas on a subject. Placed together, these sketches combine into a poignant and intimate investigation into the title of the record, which could be taken as a theme. There’s a roughness underlining everything that brings the listener closer to the subjects Tirzah takes on, which are ostensibly described by the track names: “Affection”, “Guilty”, “Basic Need”. The combination of precise lyrics and production renders the multitude of a single thought with an unspoken colour, as though you’re properly living through the details of what she’s singing about or remembering being there before.
Records like this don’t come around often. And that’s where the excellence in Devotion lays – the patience behind it all. Tirzah has worked with some of these songs for years and now she’s handed them over – to be lived through by her audience. This is an album for pressing pause on the music industry’s fast-paced release schedule. In the time it took to be released, it sits apart from a vast majority of new releases. For listeners, that should be reflected in the patience it’s afforded too. To do anything less is the miss out on one of the year’s best releases.
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