​Nilüfer Yanya Finds Colour Amidst the Greys on 'PAINLESS'

BY Kaelen BellPublished Mar 2, 2022

In his posthumously released 1996 children's book My Many Coloured Days, Dr. Seuss wrote that, on bright blue days he flapped his wings; on yellow days he was a bee; on orange a circus seal. But of grey days, Seuss wrote, "Everything is grey. I watch. But nothing moves today."

The illustrated book is based on a manuscript that Seuss wrote in 1974; the following year, German visual artist Gerhard Richter would write in a letter to Dutch museum director Edy de Wilde that the colour grey "evokes neither feelings nor associations… It has the capacity that no other colour has, to make 'nothing' visible." 

Nearly five decades later, Nilüfer Yanya offers her own album-length rumination on grey and its multitudes of nothing. PAINLESS, the London songwriter's nervy second full-length, is an account of in-betweens and half-feelings; the unflinching "LESS" of its title is not a declaration of pleasure but an oath of numbness. 

Yanya is no stranger to the vexations of grey matter. On 2019's fuzzed-out "In Your Head," she sang of being "dark and confused / Oh, though I cannot tell if I'm paranoid / Or it's all in my head." Her florid debut, Miss Universe, was a portrait of anxiety and disquiet before anything else, but its coterie of distinctive collaborators and an unnecessary conceptual framework — "cloaks and sleeves," in Yanya's own words — threatened to swallow her writing. On PAINLESS, Yanya whittles her sound to an essential minimalism, offering an unobstructed peephole into the Ames room of her mind. 

The record is defined by figurative greys. Finite conclusions are rarely drawn, and Yanya often finds herself grappling with debilitating self-doubt, singing from a haze of indecision and mistrust — of lovers, of the world, of her own mind. Read on paper, the album's lyrics — "Troubled don't count the ways I'm broken"; "You can hurt me if you feel like"; "Does sadness pick you to the bone?" — can be brutal in their forthrightness and despair. 

But, as Richter noted in a 1986 interview on his series of grey paintings, this nothingness "has to be turned on its head in the end, and has to come to a form where these paintings possess beauty." Crucially, Yanya understands this principal too, streaking her grey days with invigorating neon. For all its fear and itching paranoia, PAINLESS is a buzzing thrill. 

Built mostly on looped, inflexible drum beats and Yanya's inspired guitar playing, PAINLESS sheds much of the jazz and R&B of her earlier work in favour of industrial-flavoured rock music. Last year, she covered PJ Harvey's "Rid of Me" in an at-home performance for KEXP. The energy of that rendition — equal parts icy and impassioned — informs the sonic world crafted by Yanya and co-writer and producer Wilma Archer. The essence of Harvey's early music is there in the bluesy, sour riffs that power "L/R," while the glitching, foreground-filling beat of "Chase Me" echoes the British icon's synthetic experiments on 1998's Is This Desire? 

Elsewhere, Yanya channels Radiohead circa In Rainbows on towering centrepiece "Midnight Sun," while aquamarine closer "Anotherlife" plays like a spritely reimagining of the Blue Nile's nocturnal synth pop. Mostly though, Yanya just sounds like herself, subsuming these myriad influences into her own exacting palette of rigid beats and nimble guitar. Just as muscle memory can take you through the motions regardless of your mind's disarray — "Sometimes it feels like you're so violent / autopilot," Yanya sings on "L/R" — these concise, aerodynamic songs bely the diffuse turmoil of her inner dialogue. On "The Mystic" she's "not halfway up to speed," while over the needlework guitar of "Stabilise" she admits that she "could feel something / But it could be nothing."

Yanya rarely deals in black and white on PAINLESS, but when she does — as on the Jazzi Bobbi-assisted "Belong with You" — she swings between the poles with an exhilarating, contradictory violence. "Please don't cry / I run out of patience," Yanya sings on the tightly coiled opening verse, followed by the record's most objectively beautiful put-down: "Sick of this / I don't even like you bitch." But then, as if grafted from a devotional ballad, comes the chorus, repeated with a wild-eyed intensity: "I belong with you."

To her credit, Yanya never attempts to meld these warring ideas. She allows herself to snap like a rubber band between perspectives until, as the song careens to a close, she faces the inevitable crash: "I said there won't be a next time / But now I can't see the stop sign." 

Nothing moves on a grey day. But in that stillness the heart continues to pound and flutter; the skin tingles and the brain weathers invisible storms. The power of PAINLESS is its willingness to stand in the eye of that unseen hurricane, submerging itself in disorientation and contradiction and unknowing. The lack of resolution can be painful, but even in desperate indecision there remains the possibility of something better — a place of blues and yellows and oranges. "Spend a lot of days with these thoughts," Yanya sings on "Anotherlife," somewhere between defeat and hope. "In some kind of way I am lost / In another life I was not."
(ATO Records)

Latest Coverage