ALBUM REVIEW: Nilüfer Yanya, PAINLESS
Updated: Mar 11, 2022
Since her breakout single “Golden Cage” dropped in 2017, I have been rooting for Nilüfer Yanya. The Chelsea-born singer-songwriter fits snuggly into this new crop of indie rock women like Clairo, Snail Mail and Japanese Breakfast without getting too comfortable. Yanya makes her music in the margins, always trying to find odd angles, sounds and topics to tackle. Her debut record Miss Universe was a partial concept album that pointed towards an OK Computer-esque world of digital loneliness. While that record was a little bit overlong and overly ambitious in its structure, it proved to be a really great showcase of her strengths as an artist. Her aesthetic was so impeccable and clean, but the music she made never sounded sterile. Tracks like “In Your Head” and “Heavyweight Champion of the Year” really stamped Yanya as a staple in indie music.
It’s been three long years without brand new Yanya music, but the wait is over. I’m pleased to say that her sophomore record PAINLESS is her absolute best. It brings all the angular sonics and R&B-adjacent intrigue from the debut but cuts the fat. At a cool 46 minutes, she is able to give us her very best with minimal slip ups. My only complaint overall doesn’t really apply to my own taste, I think the music here all runs a little samey. As a fan of her music, I can notice all the subtle nuances that differentiate each cut, but I could see non-fans seeing this as all the same. It’s similar to Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher in that it is very unassuming unless you listen closely. Even with all the explanations, I don’t really have any excuses for “trouble” or “company”. The former especially feels very soupy and intangible; it’s structurelessness and faint qualities really make it entirely forgettable. Yanya loses points for a few brief moments of writer’s block, but not enough that it ever makes the record boring. In fact, PAINLESS is full of charged emotional moments that make for some of the decade's best rock songs thus far.
The opener “the dealer” reminds me of “Panic Switch” by Silversun Pickups in its drive, but overtakes that track in it’s subtlety. My ears are hit with a flurry of fast guitars and drums, and Yanya delivers on a melodic level. The lyrics are the highlight for me though, love is a drug and she’s looking for a “dealer” that she can trust. “stablise” is another moment of excitement on the record, a post-punky ballad that takes equal influence from Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” and surf rock. Her lyrical phrasing and delivery on this chorus and most of the record is genius in my opinion, she has this instinct where she can hush herself or get more prominent in the mix at variable times depending on when it’s needed. The best example of creative writing and delivery in my opinion has to be on the sleepy “try”, where each of the verses are split into distinct sections where she changes up the structure. It’s a little hard to explain, even though this is my job, but the takeaway here is that Yanya pays attention to small details.
On “L/R” and “chase me”, each cut starts off with this really ear grabbing, distinct drum sound that forces me to pay attention to what follows. The former is more echoed and metallic, whereas the latter is far more scratchy and industrial. This is what I mean when I say “attention to small details”. Something as simple as a guitar tone, drum sound or vocal inflection can make a world of difference, and Yanya knows exactly what to put where. “chase me” without a distinct instrumental would be cool, but in combination with jaded lyrics like “I can't make no friends/'Cause I can't make no sense/'Cause I can't play pretend”, those industrial drums make what she's saying sound so much more dark. Even the glitchy little section at the end adds enough character to help the music stick, which is the most valuable thing art can do in this ceaseless world of media consumption we exist in.
Thematically, I am loving all the contradictory writing. It’s hard to tell at any moment whether Yanya is upset, hopeful, regretful, blaming – it all kind of blends wonderfully into the poetry and emotions. Like on “midnight sun”, she sings “I better turn this up/I hope it drowns you out”, seemingly suggesting her lover is a nuisance. However, the central drive of the track is that this person is her “midnight sun”, her light illuminating the darkness. A pleb might point out that this is bad writing, but if you’ve ever been in love, then you’ve simultaneously looked at your lover as a gift from God and an annoying ass motherfucker. It’s just the way monogamous relationships are, you are eternally grateful for this person yet there are times when you want them to go somewhere else. “the mystic” has a similar quality to it, claiming that this person has one last chance to figure their shit out, but she also refers to herself as “red”. Does she mean her existence is a red flag, or that she is a stop sign where you should look no further? It’s really up to the audience to figure that out, and I deeply appreciate her for not treating us all like dullards.
I wasn’t super keen on the single “anotherlife” on first listen, but it’s such a great way to close out the record. She pleads that she’ll “do anything”, devoting herself to love, while still deep in her own head (“Spend a lot of days with these thoughts”). In the music video, she is basically taking a honeymoon with herself to a beach hotel, eating fruits, swimming, and even putting on a wedding dress at one point. To me, it’s a loop closure where she is realizing that she loves herself more than anything else. She spends the entire record being so skeptical of others, wondering whether or not she can depend on anyone for anything solid. It’s this paradox, if you never go outside, you’ll never experience heartbreak, injury or disappointment. However, without that element, life is kind of bland, PAINLESS if you will. At the end of it all, the pain is almost worth it for the catharsis of self-actualization. This is yet another healing record of 2022, and I am all here for it.