Review Summary: Yves Tumor will absolve you -- but only if you offer yourself for condemnation first
Yves Tumor isn’t one for giving clues, let alone maps, to demystify his complex lattices and intersecting reticulations, but there are a couple. We’re going to need them. Experiencing Safe in the Hands of Love is akin to finding ourselves in a spy or mystery novel. With each locked door finally opened comes another room, another puzzle or riddle, another irreconcilable enigma. I feel constantly alert listening to this in a way I do very few albums, trying to untangle the noise and reach something concrete but, as in a dream where the closer you get to something the more it recedes from view and grasp, or where a hand connects with another only for the other to dissipate in a puff of smoke, that connection of ideas, bodies, proves elusive. It’s a good thing the album is so damn good or I’d have given up in frustration.
Which is to say this is a difficult, dense album. I can’t promise a thesis or intimation of such; I can’t even really promise a suggestion of how to tackle it. I can, however, try and make good an album that wants to make good but in the final estimation can’t: this failure is one of the albums strengths.
In a quote that I’m sure will be mentioned a lot in any discourse surrounding the album, Yves Tumor was once asked where he lived. “A lot of people are confused about my actual whereabouts, but that’s OK” was the response that should surely get him into the annals of witty rejoinders at least, but it’s an illustrative quote. Consider the blind men and the elephant: put on “Faith in Nothing Except in Salvation” and be confident you’re about to experience a dizzying hynogogic work; put on “Honesty” and expect R&B; put on Noid first, as many did, and expect a politically-driven indie affair. What the hell is it? As rym’s genre voting system attests, no-one is quite sure. It pulls of the impressive trick of shape-shifting constantly, an album in a state of perpetual flux that retains its cohesion throughout. Elsewhere, he gets loose with Puce (Mary) as she let’s loose an abstruse (sorry) torrent of buzzing squall, suitable for Yves’ increasingly demonic spoken word, invites James K to compliment his crooning hook on Licking an Orchid (my man out here eating ass), a gorgeous trip-hop ballad that becomes more sinister the more one fixates on the lyrics.
If the frenetic genre-bending is confusing, I suspect that’s intentional. Another clue is a cut from his first album, limerence, which describes a kind of heady lustful yearning commonly confused with love. The ambience of the track shimmers seductively while dawdling, and over the top of the track a conversation between presumably new lovers is heard, cut so we hear the entreaties of “babe!”, the jocular “stop ***in looking at me” and the serious “stop ***ing looking at me”. It’s a disconcerting piece that is a synecdoche not of his work but of his intent.
For Yves (who I am definitely not on a first name basis with), the words that recur in his work – “Faith”, “Love”, “Salvation”, “Freedom”, “Honesty”, “Suffering” – aren’t just words but fundamental human concepts, ones which necessitate rigorous analysis in a world where the notions are throwaway. There’s something almost occult about his deployment of the words in his titles. Experiencing a deposit of faith? Safe in the Hands of Love? Like, isn’t that some heavens gate ***? In a cynical society where concepts have been eradicated in lieu of marketable words and feelings, there’s something troubling and “other” in this combined childish naivete and worldy knowing and that’s what makes it difficult to latch onto.
My next conjecture/trick is informed largely by an Anglican upbringing, but there's something very religious about the concepts Yves explores, and I think therein lies something that has to be unpacked strenuously. Witness: overtly religious themes being unable to be reconciled with a fundamentally secular, faithless society (troubling: did we throw the baby out with the water?) but also reconciling personal crises (homosexuality, gender, behaviour) but finding them unable to be integrated into any kind of spiritual paradigm, the attitudes to the afore-mentioned having been tainted by religious discourse of past. We can no longer turn to the priest or a higher power for exoneration, only psychiatry, which is to say: ourselves. The safety of his approach, imaginably, is very user-specific, but the point is that no-one is available to offer benedictions from upon high -- and few are able to offer love either.
If the music presents a maze, it’s because Yves finds himself in one he can’t get out of: how do we feel, really feel, that which makes us human in an age of constant chatter? How are we meant to feel when it causes so much agonising pain that modernity has offered medications, distractions and self-medications to ameliorate the existence of the pain and the feeling? No wonder the whole thing sounds so cluttered, so brutal, so paradoxical. Yves is trying to get out. He is failing.
Yves Tumor will absolve you, but only if you offer yourself for condemnation first. He ***-sure puts himself through the wringer. Consider the lyrics of “Honesty”, made acceptable only by the R&B soundscapes and his charming voice: “I just met you / and I can’t live without you / why can’t I ever / ignore this feeling now / I want to wrap around you”. Sans context it’s kind of… creepy right? It strikes me as a need for emotional intimacy gone feral. Here are the lyrics to the songs compliment, Recognizing the Enemy: “You love someone else / it hurts so much / knowing I couldn’t help / remove the part of me” he spits, full of self-loathing. The horror of it is that the “living hell” he exists in in cyclical, informed by a series of parts and behaviours. It’s such a brilliant conceit, a repudiation of perceived deficits, so personal, that the first time I heard it I gasped out loud.
And Let the Lioness in You Flow Freely! Man! While most commenters I’ve seen have interpreted this as a triumphant conclusion of genderfluid empowerment, I can’t hear it. I hear the snarl of a lioness (“no other girl’s gonna treat you right”) but it strikes me as a vitriolic, vituperative song, all fury directed at self for buying into a kind of “yass queen” “get yours girl” platitude rhetoric that resulted in emptiness. The soundscape in it is frankly incredible, recalling Sonic Youth’s Confusion is Sex noisescapes with Yves Tumors own post-industrial inclinations until we end on a stuttered “let me be your angelfire” and we go back to the beginning, because with an album like this of course we do and – *** – it begins on a stutter too, stammering horns becoming more confident as saxophone riffs enter and we’re back and the beginning of the cycle.
It’s a flawed album in other ways than of its own making: weirdly, Noid, one of my favourite individual tracks, does not fit on the album. I understand that if the personal is political the opposite must be true but I have trouble reconciling the different sonic and thematic texture with the rest of the album, and in an album filled with nuance it renders what should be a powerful BLM anthem kind of trite. Some of the soundscapes don’t go anywhere or go places too fast – the blast of noise in Licking the Orchid is erroneous and seems like a rare moment of weirdness for its own sake.
On the whole, however, it is the album Yves Tumor has hinted at making for years, a realisation of everything that makes them wondrous, and a culmination of ideas, experimentation and soundscapes into a brutal, beautiful, purposeful statement. It also timely; if it feels hopeless at times, or gets lost in internal reflection, or it seems impossible to get, it’s because it kind of feels like 2018 is hopeless at times, and that it mirrors our own perpetual state of self-surveillance, and that 2018 feels impossible to get. Who is the monster on the cover? Yves Tumor knows; after listening to the album you might find it a little close to your reflection, a mirrored backscatter, and you might hear the echoes that open and close the album, however faintly, in yourself as well.