Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
State of Sound is back & even bigger. Get tix for the next show!

Yves Tumor's disruptive pop-cultural synthesis

A man with gold-painted skin and long hair holds a checkered acoustic guitar while sitting on a molded piece of art shaped like a mushroom.
Isabella Corderas
The tension between private thoughts and public personae, in a culture that forces consent to being constantly watched, feels like the guiding narrative of Yves Tumor's sonic and visual world.

The latest Yves Tumor album begins with a scream and ends with a call to lock eyes.

A project with the koan-like title Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds) might seem like it's obscuring or even deliberately thumbing its nose at meaning, but the carnal bookending of a scream and a gaze suggests otherwise. It is a deranged beckoning into a free space — not frightening, but urgent still. Romantic, corporeal, gothy. A form of desire that's more chaotic and undefined; what social media has smoothed away our collective tolerance for.

This is typical of Yves Tumor, a sensitive Tennessean glam-punk with a penchant for noise and poetry. Praise A Lord is the fifth Yves record, and despite the avant-garde packaging — like the music videos for "God Is A Circle" and "Heaven Surrounds Us Like A Hood," which connect Hype Williams and Italian cinema within a surrealist continuum — the vibes gesture at a more conventional ethic.

"I like to go on hikes and I like swimming," Yves said in a recent conversation with the multidisciplinary artist Kembra Pfahler. As with David Bowie, whom Yves is often compared to, or even Sun Ra, the avatar is a mirror to a more transcendent premise, reflecting our own humanity back at us.

Over the course of their career, and with precision on Praise A Lord, Yves engages with the provocative trappings of pop music, performance art, and rock and roll to closer examine life's minutiae. Here, humanity is fragile, flawed and still deserving of tenderness — a point of view that's perverse, only if one fetishizes the puritanical.

Among Yves' top-streamed tracks is 2017's "Limerence," an ambient audio collage surrounding tender washes of one-way dialogue from a lover to their beloved — but also a presumed audience. "This is my boyfriend, who I've been with for —" It all sounds so normal, the way we talk into our phones like diligent archivists, or actors. The gentle soundscape could be a document of mundanity, sweet love in modern times, but the title reveals that within yearning lingers something a bit darker.

The tension between private thoughts and public personae, in a culture that forces consent to being constantly watched, feels like the guiding narrative of Yves Tumor's sonic and visual world.

"It gives me life when something is made that no one saw happening," Yves told fashion iconoclast Michèle Lamy in a 2020 interview. They were also recently interviewed by Courtney Love. What could be more unconventional shit than having Pfahler, Lamy and Love, all transgressive artistic icons, as your street team?

The song "Echolalia" strains against this pressure: "You know that you're making me uncomfortable / I see you standing there, but you're all alone / You look so magical."

It's disorienting to know that the function of digital media, at present, is to collate and collapse the abundance of human experience into a shallow monoculture. Or, as a character in Samuel Delany's sci-fi opus Dhalgren describes it, "an over-industrialized society which has learned to distrust magic."

In this context, Yves Tumor's synthesis of pop cultures — Black Americana, punk rock, excess, fantasy, god and the threat of godlessness — could be surprising. But that says more about how we have become trained to see and think about race, genre, art and our own complicated humanity, through divided lines and fixity.

On the track "Parody," through squealing guitars and choral arpeggios provided by The Samples — the choir for Kanye West's Sunday Service — Yves ponders this paradox and arrives at an idea, or maybe self-diagnosis: "parody of a pop star." Rather than proclaiming the present as sick, Yves wraps themselves up in its language — pop music. Specifically vivid melodies, groovy basslines and nostalgia, derived from a youth spent listening to Motown records and Southern jam bands.

"My mama said that God sees everything. And my daddy always taught me to say 'thank you,' 'yes ma'am' and 'no sir,' 'yes please,'" Yves chants on "God Is A Circle," a song that lurches to a peak before its component parts — metronomic gasping, bright backing vocals, a bassline that bristles like a rumble strip — swirl in on each other like water funneling down the drain.

Although Praise A Lord, on the surface, channels the ethos of heavy music, there are comforting anchors within its sonic universe. Listening to this album feels like scratching at the dials of FM radio — an inherently mundane experience — and hearing scraps of songs from artists like TV on the Radio, Crystal Castles, Frank Ocean, Prince, My Morning Jacket, Oasis, A.R. Kane, Miri Ben-Ari and Best Coast.

"Lovely Sewer," a new wave-y duet between Yves Tumor and Kidä, conjures the comforting convention of conversational stadium power ballads from Meatloaf to Ariana Grande and The Weeknd. The instrumental track "Purified By The Fire," brings to mind the warm, vivid looping and crunchy drums of rap producer 9th Wonder, before being deconstructed into something more sinister and orchestral. Nestling these familiar fragments within the lurid, like a Ferrero Rocher, isn't just a textural thing — it's an invitation to discover the fermenting sweetness within our own horrors.

Back to the scream that opens the album. "Sound gives to the consciousness an evidence of its existence," wrote Sufi master Inayat Khan in his 1923 text, The Mysticism of Sound and Music. This is why as babies, and then as children, we scream and shout until we're told not to. It is a process of coming to consciousness that should be heard as a summons, not an opportunity to project fear.

"My shout cannot be read, it cannot be discerned, it cannot be picked apart and catalogued into musical notation or rationalizations," writes Debby Friday, a Canadian experimental musician and artist of Nigerian descent. "In fact, it destroys meaning. A black hole of not only my body, my gender, my race, but of all that hear my call and come to perceive [my] presence."

There are hierarchies of gender, race, desire (as in needs, but also romance) and performance that Yves Tumor's music disrupts through its intense magnification and worship of life, death and spirituality. Praise A Lord could be heard as a thesis statement, the cohering of ideas, but I think its function is in breaking things apart.

It exists against an indeterminate grain: We don't know what it is against, although it isn't us, the audience, because there is a lot of love here. But I think that imprecision is useful in opening up the possibility that the animus of this sickly moment may not be situated entirely within the status quo, in the systems out there — it's also within us.

This reveals what is truly at stake: love, god, compassion, innocence. How might we transform upon taking a deep breath, and venturing into that free space with a scream?

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anupa Mistry