Few artists have managed to maintain as absolute a reserve about their private life as Yves Tumor. Supposed to have grown up in Knoxville, Tennessee, no one knows exactly where they are currently living, and despite various references to them as Rahel Ali or Sean Bowie we are not even sure about their real name. Posts on social media are minimal, their interviews are extremely rare, and their statements almost elusive. Although their androgynous appearance and sporadic episodes in the Los Angeles scene have prompted many to classify them as a “queer artist” through the years, they maintain a deep reservation about this part of their life, refusing to “make my gender or my sexuality my personal brand”. So, who are we talking about when we talk about Yves Tumor?
Looking for traces in their only public testament – their music – the answer could be just as opaque. Only four years ago in 2016, Serpent Music, their second LP and debut on PAN records, turned the spotlight on a promising new experimental artist. Moving recklessly between dark atmospheres and obscure field recordings, it could stand on a shelf somewhere between ambient and noise. Then 2018’s Safe in the Hands of Love, out via WARP Records, marked a transformation: diving into apocalyptic feelings, fears and paranoia, Tumor made their music borderless, shifting through many different styles and showing excellent skills in each of them. It was what we would call an “avant-pop” album. So, when they announced a new release a few months ago, it was difficult to bet on which path they would take.
Heaven to a Tortured Mind is probably the most pop and sort-of-commercial album Tumor has ever made. It is a proudly pop-rock record, with catchy melodies and powerful, uplifting guitar riffs. But at the same time, it is raw and visceral, with vocals that change from soft choirs to disturbing screams. Trying to label it, you could define it as a patchwork of glam and psych rock, soul, indie, r’n’b, noise, and probably a hundred of other styles. But most of all and first of all, it’s a drum-and-guitar driven album.
However unexpected, to a careful glance this new direction is not completely extraneous. On the contrary, its roots can be traced backwards. In one of their rare interviews, published by Pitchfork in 2017, they talked about their obsession with old Motown records – an inheritance from their father: “It’s in my DNA. (…) I’ve always had funky, groovy shit in my ears, probably before I even knew what music was”. Jumping forward in time, on their recent tours Tumor has been accompanied by a live band: in their concerts the “rock” attitude towered far above the more typical electronic gig cliches.
Surprisingly, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is radically distant from a retro, nostalgic operation. Unlike many contemporary productions, it does not seek to emulate a past sound or image, making it a stereotype. Tumor’s sound lives by groovy bass lines and gorgeous instrumental solos, but also by harsh electronics and indistinguishable samples. There are electric guitars and falsetto choirs, as there are invasive flanger and wah effects that unnaturally upset the sound. It comes from painstaking production work rather than a classic recording session. Sure, there are a lot of rock instrumental solos, but even in the cleanest moments, their sound comes out muffled, as if we were listening to an old vinyl from a curious audio system not perfectly set and disturbed by constant interference. There is a kind of protective layer that wraps everything, and reminds us of its artificiality. There are no lies; when you listen to it, it is immediately clear that we are not in the seventies or anywhere else in time. Instead, the authentic dimension of this work is made by continuous short circuits that confuse the perception of time and space themselves.
Take the album opener, “Gospel for a New Century”. It starts with triumphant horns, a sample from a 1978 album of South Korean vocalist Lee Son Ga. In the chorus, they sing “Come and light my fire, babe” like the Doors in 1966. In “Hasdallen Lights”, a vaporous synthetic loop moves from a sample of Sue Barker’s “Love to The People” (1976), while “Super Stars” samples the uplifting guitar riff of England’s “Three Piece Suite” (1977). Then it is moving again: tracks like “Folie Imposée” and “Strawberry Privilege” touch the electronic indie of the new millennium, the shoegaze guitar and the soft voice of Diana Gordon in “Kerosene!” recall distant universes and then explode into a sensational guitar solo. It is a frenetic, continuous succession of flashes and epiphanies. Everything appears and disappears like a mirage. As classic as it is contemporary, the temporal and geographic coordinates become obsolete, parts of a single flow where Tumor moves the pawns in a bold way, psychedelically confusing our perception of reality.
Among this myriad of space-time clashes, the presence of Tumor is a magnetic catalyst: their raspy vocals penetrate the bones, sensually singing about pleasure, love and damnation. They are a cursed rockstar exactly as you might imagine, glad to meet the devil in the mind-expanding “Medicine Burn” (it is a terrifying creature with seven heads and six hundred teeth, and transforms the grooves into a demonic noise wall). A self-destructive tendency combines with a sense of omnipotence, in the most spiritual meaning: “Can you be my fantasy? / (…) I can be anything.”, they sing in “Kerosene!”.
Apparently anarchic, their poetics is built meticulously, and moves constantly forward to unexpected directions, surprising us every minute. As a demiurge on Heaven to a Tortured Mind, they intersect visions and soundscapes in a psychedelic vortex. Turning the tables once again, Yves Tumor remains true to themselves but goes beyond all conventions and expectations, succeeding as only the most talented artists do.