Tirzah Sound Like They're Drifting Apart on 'Devotion'

Photo: Clare Shilland / Courtesy of Domino Records

Devotion lacks the clarity and urgency of Tirzah's earlier work.



10 August 2018

Tirzah's Devotion is a collection of love songs, but in an obligatory way, as if "love" were chosen from a hat filled with possible subjects. If you listen to the lyrics on the first full-length album by the duo of Tirzah Mastin and Mica Levi, you will hear familiar themes and refrains.

"All I want is you."

"I can see through you."

"Will you let me hold you?"

As sung by Mastin, the duo's lyricist and vocalist, those and other lyrics don't offer anything that approaches personal insight. They feel like diagrams of love songs, performed with a sort of tired resignation.

It's okay to be vague. There are plenty of great songs that don't make a whole lot of sense when you put them on paper. But no matter how specific your lyrics are, there must be something else — melody, harmony, tone, timbre, rhythm — that creates or reinforces a sense of perspective.

Mastin doesn't have that something else, but the arrangements from Levi do. Levi started the band Micachu and the Shapes, and, more recently, has won praise for the incisive, sometimes disorienting scores she wrote for the films Under the Skin and Jackie. She's a smart, precise, and restrained composer who chooses sounds carefully to maximize their impact. In her work, you can sense attention to space — how to fill it and how much of it to leave empty.

With Mastin, Levi's arrangements are spare and repetitive, mostly comprised of acoustic and synthetic pianos and drum loops. But there is a lot to hear in them — melodies that ring with uncertainty, distortions, and echoes that convey ambivalence — evidence of her attention to all the ways she can manipulate sound to create emotional resonance.

Some of her arrangements have surprising amounts of depth and expressive shading, like in "Basic Need", where disembodied voices and echoing tones evoke romantic feelings that haven't quite settled. Or in "Say When", where a simple, ascending piano melody is manipulated to sound like it's being played underwater with a weight holding it down.

Levi's contributions are dulled by Mastin, who sings in a drowsy, affectless manner. Her lyrics could be addressed to anyone or no one at all. When she sings, "I come to you with an open heart" on "Say When", it sounds like an abstraction. She disrupts the careful balance achieved by Levi, and the effect is not dissonance — which can be exciting — but dilution. The songs amount to less than the sums of their parts.

Mastin and Levi's collaborations have not always been like this. They released an excellent series of dance songs between 2013 and 2015 that had a clarity missing on Devotion. On those songs, Levi was the driving force, with Mastin taking an effective supporting role. Her casual, offhand tone worked better as a rhythmic and tonal element than a narrative one, acting as a counterbalance to Levi's propulsive beats.

Those songs didn't orient themselves around the kinds of narratives that require emotive singing. The feelings they produced were tactile, registering as sensations rather than stories. There, Mastin and Levi's divergent styles created the impression of unity, with each giving the other something she was missing. On Devotion, you can hear them drifting apart.

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