Tirzah: Devotion review – quiet love stories from DIY R&B enigma

Making magic out of minimal patterns – with the help of old friend and producer Mica Levi – the singer spins alluring stories of intimacy and love

It has not been a vintage year for albums about love. Strenuous efforts by Beyoncé and Jay-Z and Dirty Projectors both had a whiff of protesting too much. With lyrics about his “purple” rubbing against his wife’s “pink”, Justin Timberlake’s lumberjack turn on Man of the Woods functioned like an artisanal, hand-whittled chastity belt. Rapturous declarations of romance feel gauche in calamitous times, and so the few smitten records to stick out in 2018 have had a smaller outlook. If there was anything to unite Kacey Musgraves’ cosmic country opus Golden Hour and the scruffy soul of Hot Chip frontman Alexis Taylor’s Beautiful Thing, it was their shared sense of grateful relief: thank God I don’t have to endure this hellscape alone.

Alluring and profound … Tirzah: Devotion – album artwork

Tirzah’s debut is one of these kinds of love album. The Hot Chip connection stretches a bit further – her first two EPs were released on Greco-Roman, the dance label run by the band’s Joe Goddard, before she signed to Domino. Tirzah could have capitalised on the acclaim for her 2013 single I’m Not Dancing, a brilliant dance-pop scrap seemingly assembled from pirate radio static and the bassy thump of passing hatchbacks. But she didn’t, surfacing only occasionally for a low-key release. By day she works as a print designer, living in south London with her partner and baby. And like Taylor and co, 30-year-old Tirzah hymns quieter, lesser-hymned themes of long-term love and domesticity in a way that makes them alluring and occasionally profound.

Devotion also tells another love story. Tirzah has made all of her music, including this album, in collaboration with Mica Levi – initially known as a leftfield pop auteur with her band the Shapes, later lauded for scores for the films Under the Skin and Jackie, the latter earning her an Oscar nomination. The pair met at the Purcell School for Young Musicians near Watford, where Tirzah studied harp, Levi viola, and they started their collaboration by tooling around with DIY R&B. Aged 13, they wrote a song called Go Now, which appears on Devotion and offers an endearingly teenage idea of adult relationships, apparently gleaned from the era’s US pop: “I’m thinking you’ve been fucking with me,” Tirzah sings, and wonders why she never sees any of this cad’s (pocket) money. But the new arrangement is as sophisticated as the lyrics are naive – her naturally hooky phrasing laces her pain with a touch of threat, emphasised by stark, kicky drums, and Levi’s synthetic plucked string motif brings to mind Kelela’s shadowy Take Me Apart.

Go Now, like most of the songs on Devotion, orbits a small, repeated loop, often played on the piano or slightly tarnished-sounding synths. While you could accuse the ideas of being underdeveloped, that’s the point, not a limitation. The loops emphasise Tirzah’s cocoon of intimacy and align her and Levi with Arthur Russell, another lo-fi enigma who made magic out of repeating patterns. The arrangements are simple but elevated by deft touches of texture and mood, siphoning into hypnotic minimalism the essence of muted soul, garage, grime, R&B and the shattered club tracks that made the defunct London club Plastic People tremble in the early 2010s.

Tirzah: Devotion – video

Alone at the clubbiest end of the album is Holding On, a softly brusque shuffle anchored by three clipped synthetic brass notes. It’s intensely private dance music, so closely recorded that the slightest nuances in Tirzah’s voice register strongly. When she sings, “Don’t wanna hang on to you if you’re happy alone”, a slight crack in her mercury-heavy, Essex-hued devotional acts like a get-out clause. It’s Devotion’s most conventionally inviting song; at its more austere end, language and melody break down. She stutters her words on Affection, as if being subsumed by the reverberating waves of piano that wash over every few bars, to sensual and magnetic effect.

In between are an array of piano ballads so uninterested in the conventions of piano balladry that they initially seem chilly. But thanks to Tirzah’s lulling loops and inventive melodies, they become seductive and comforting. There’s a ghostly tenderness straight out of Solange’s playbook on the title track, hooked around a forlorn vocal refrain from Coby Sey (a dead ringer for Sampha), while Gladly turns a simple statement of romantic contentment (“All I want is you”) into a mood of almost psychedelic transcendence.

Most of the lyrics are that lucid, encompassing reassurance, mutual need and love. Hardly any of them are worth quoting in isolation – not dazzling on the page but startlingly precise crystallisations of the private language and connection that can exist between two people. Both for the relationship it depicts and the collaborative one behind its sound, Devotion is a beautiful testament to those quieter bonds – the unflashy, sturdy kind that bear the load.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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