Being in love is a complicated experience. One only has to listen to Devotion, the debut record from London-based singer-songwriter Tirzah, for a taste of both the elation and turbulence it can encompass. The album is written from a deeply personal place, as she grapples with both the light and dark of relationships against an atmospheric musical backdrop, doing so with both patience and grace.
Tirzah is joined by longtime collaborator Mica Levi (Micachu and the Shapes), who tackles music composition and production. It takes a special personality to soundtrack such an introspective and honest catalogue of songs, though one would be pressed to find a more suited candidate than Levi. Not only is she an Oscar nominated composer, but the two musicians have remained close friends for years, and as proven by their extensive history of collaborations, have a strong artistic relationship.
Despite the shared duties, it is clear that Devotion is a Tirzah record, marking a a change of pace in comparison to the duo’s past projects. While the singer’s first EP I’m Not Dancing (2013) was defined by pulsing synths and industrial beats, her full-length debut is more minimal and patient. Tirzah’s voice is the ringleader of Devotion, the primary instrument. Adorning her vocals is a unique blend of trip-hop grooves, surges of electronica and laid-back beats – fusing together in a contemporary sound. But that’s not to say that the album is missing any of the off-kilter quirks that are signature of Levi’s style.
Opening track “Fine Again” opens with an eccentric warbling of other-worldly keys that float in and around Tirzah’s steady, emotive vocals. “I’m here to catch you, don’t worry about worries while I’m here to get you,” she assures a loved one. The opener glows with tenderness and warmth, wrapping the listener in the wholesome picture of what pure love is. It’s a vibe that Tirzah replicates on tracks such as lead single “Gladly”, as ethereal synth and relaxed percussion whirl beneath her lovesick pine of “all I want is you, just you”. This romanticised view of love is not what dominates the record however, as the singer chooses to explore the shadows which lie behind the light of romance. In “Do You Know”, production takes on a darker tone, with low synthetic whistles and warped, sporadic drum beats spangling beneath repeated variations of the song’s title. Tirzah poses each question rhetorically, sending each one echoing, unanswered into space.
It becomes clear that a central theme of Devotion is Tirzah’s conflict between head and heart, as is reflected through stand-out track “Holding On”. Upbeat and hopeful, the song brings to mind the surging electro-pop dance of her past discography. “Maybe it’s stupid, but I want nothing else,” she admits over a heaving scale of synth and fast paced, crunching percussion. Love may be a leap of faith, but for Tirzah, its one she knows she can’t refuse.
Following the high of “Holding On”, the record levels its pace with “Affection”, another of Devotion’s leading singles. The instrumentation here is spare, highlighting Levi’s knack in creating raw but gentle musical atmospheres. “I see right through you,” the singer croons over a somber piano, the arrangement allowing for each of her lyrics to burn with an especial poignancy before fading, like a struck match. As Devotion crosses into its second half, the record dips into darker territory. “Guilty” is a hard-hitting confession of infidelity, with a growling electric guitar, lyrics that sting with regret and anguish, delivered by vocals so twisted in reverb they are barely recognisable.
Despite the deeply personal nature of this album, Tirzah proves herself no victim to her sentimentality. “Go Now” shines with a bold feminist energy reminiscent of Destiny’s Child, as Tirzah’s velvety vocals stride forward with a refreshing fierceness, subdued only by the finesse of layered harmonies as she calmly recites “don’t raise your voice to me”.
The end of Devotion comes into sight with “Say When”, which sees Tirzah contemplate the struggle of remaining genuine and protecting the one you love. The singer’s voice takes centre stage, hiding behind nothing as she confronts the details of her relationship in search of truth. A smooth phrase of keys glosses over the track, as she melodically murmurs what could be Devotion’s mission statement – “I’m only trying to be real, don’t reject the way I feel”. It’s a stark honesty that continues into closing track “Reach”, as the singer reaches a conclusion. She only wants what’s best for the person she loves, though the final destination may not involve her.
Ultimately, the shift from the warped, thumping production of Tirzah‘s previous work to a smooth blend of neo-soul and downbeat electronic is a welcome one. Its minimalism may be powerful, yet at times the records finds itself resembling an echo chamber of pining and desire, surrounded by a repetition of industrial beats and rudimentary key patterns. With that said, Devotion still provides enough variation and nuance to stand luminously as a sober, heartfelt glimpse of a woman coming to terms with love and letting go.
Devotion is released Friday 10th August via Domino Recording Company.