Seductive downtempo pop





4 stars

Listening to Tirzah's debut album Devotion, you recall downtempo, a particular strand of electronic music making waves in the late 1990s from the chillout rooms on the Balearic island of Ibiza to the trip-hop mecca of Bristol.

It is characterised by a glacial pace, more come-down than rev-me-up. You move slower, fall into a couch and let the vibes wash over you.

Highly tuneful melodies are found in Paul McCartney's 18th solo album Egypt Station.

However, what distinguishes the music of the South Londoner, whose full name is Tirzah Mastin, from downtempo sub-genres such as chillwave and hypnagogic pop is how its pacing belies the intimacy. You are likely to cock your head in curiosity.

A big hint can be seen in Tirzah's longtime pal, producer Mica Levi (also known as Micachu), the genius behind the wonderfully tactile soundtracks of Jonathan Glazer's 2013 sci-fi art-film Under Your Skin and Pablo Larrain's 2016 drama Jackie.

Devotion plays like a secret missive from someone's dreamscape. Tirzah is an unusual vocalist, happy to allow her voice to be cut up and played with - not to sound like a high-concept robot, but to reveal aspects of her idiosyncratic approach towards the messy thing called love.

The 31-year-old, who has a daughter with electronic musician Kwake Bass, pursues these matters of the heart in a minor, but no less significant, key.

Nothing is shoved upfront, like a diva moment. She explains in a recent interview about her dynamic with Levi: "She brings this chaos, this unravelling to the project. She says that I bring the calm."

This strange tension underlies the eviscerating title track, a duet with South London electronic musician Coby Sey.

As Sey pleads repeatedly: "So listen to me", Tirzah responds, weather-beaten: "I just want your attention/I just want you to listen/I don't want the solutions/I just want to explain things."

Expectations are also upended in Guilty, which opens with an electric guitar solo, apparently heralding a heavy rock showdown. The machismo swiftly dissipates as Tirzah's voice is looped and Auto-Tuned into a fascinating tug of war.

"Did I let you feel the blame when I should have been faithful?... Did I make you feel cold when I left you outside?" goes the refrain. "What are you gonna do about it?"

The litany of questions isn't a salvo. It's delivered nonchalantly, as if at a water point.

This is the emotional delicacy of Tirzah. She is not who she appears to be. She can disarm you with Fine Again, which has the easy, autumnal charm of early Feist, but the track is soon hijacked by pauses, U-turns and detours.

"Do you know," she asks in the song titled, well, Do You Know. "Sometimes it's like I never even knew you," she confesses. You want to know her. It just takes time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2018, with the headline 'Seductive downtempo pop '. Print Edition | Subscribe