Tirzah Deconstructs Everything on 'Colourgrade'

BY Kaelen BellPublished Sep 27, 2021

A lullaby ought to be soft and quiet, but its core objective isn't beauty so much as hypnosis — repetitive, beckoning, inescapable. There's a witchy danger to the very act of murmuring into the dim; an effective lullaby is an incantation that disarms and disappears you, a needle threading the seam between here and away.

Tirzah's Colourgrade is a collection of such enchantments, a series of fractured cradle songs that push into the dark membrane at the edge of so many lullabies. The record is milk-stained, heavy-lidded, exceptionally patient and unconcerned with the outside world. It's almost voyeuristically intimate, alive with the uncontainable, earth-shifting, mundane love that tethers parent and child.

The record opens on Tirzah Mastin's voice, metallic and liquified as though she's speaking through a fan. The song is near-formless, a molasses-slow melody wandering in drowsy, imperfect circles. What words can be made out are tender and near-desperate, as though spoken in the grips of sleep — "keep your face close." And at the 1:25 mark, just as you think it's all about to snap into place — a drumbeat or bass will land as anchors, a guitar riff will pull melody from the haze — a drunken whistle appears instead, straight from a seaside carnival haunted house.

The title track never finds that anticipated footing, but it's clear that Tirzah and her small family of collaborators — Mica Levi and Coby Sey, most fundamentally — are not in search of such clean landings. Instead, they've created something wholly new, a record that eschews the deconstructed pop and R&B of 2018's Devotion for the essence of deconstruction itself. Colourgrade is irregular, in-process, as though it's being conjured second by second and remade each time you hit play. 

In 2009, the Knife's Karen Dreijer released Fever Ray, a record occupied largely by parenthood and domesticity that felt entirely mutant, a humid swampland of music that drenched routine in a slick of black oil. Colourgrade occupies a different season on the same planet, the brittle winter to Dreijer's muggy, sticky summer. Despite their metallic strangeness — and, perhaps magnified by it, as the alien chill forces you to pull closer to the warmth of Tirzah's words — these songs evoke love and devotion, raw and pink at their core. Atop the slow-boiling synth and stuttering drum of "Beating," Tirzah marvels at the miracle of life itself, an ode to her partner and the child growing inside her: "Found you / you found me," she sings sleepily. "You got me / I got you / we made life / it's beating." 

Over the tooth-tingling plastic squeak and deteriorating guitar that sprawls lazily across "Sleeping," she intones "My baby / she's sleeping tonight." Tirzah's words are often difficult to make out, but when she can be understood, she is direct, warm, dedicated: "I hold you tight / so close, I hold you / I hold you tight." 

And sometimes, there are no words to be spoken at all. The record's centrepiece is the six-and-a-half-minute "Crepuscular Rays," a wordless cloud of a song that finds Tirzah murmuring and humming within a crystalline tunnel of gently strummed guitar. If this sounds ponderous, that's because it should be. But in the hands of Tirzah and her collaborators, "Crepuscular Rays" transcends; words of love distilled to pure sound, it's every bit as illuminating as its namesake. 

On first listen, Colourgrade may frustrate for its complete insularity and disregard for pop structure. Its decaying guitars, fractured beats and in-the-room atmosphere never cohere into anything as immediate as Devotion's "Holding On" or "Gladly." But it's an act of daring, making a record that feels so completely a piece of its creator's DNA, littered with the musk and skin and shadow and light of life.

And despite the gentle intimacy of the subject matter, the music itself is menacing, sensual, sideways and delirious and sometimes fearful. There's a destabilizing intensity to the trio's compositions, a complete lack of self-consciousness and a sense of total freedom, as though the record was made with no intention to release it at all. These songs aren't catchy earworms but ghostly parasites, burrowing into the folds of your brain and asking that you surrender yourself to their state of half-sleep. 

On the cover, Tirzah flips through a children's picture book. Its page, caught like a wave mid-crash, blurs into the air, it's edges dissolved to nothing and painting the air pink and orange. This is Colourgrade's magic ⎯ it captures the quiet humdrum of life at its most unreal, blearing domestic love and childrearing and sleep and exhaustion into something suddenly, amazingly unfamiliar.

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