In Fine Again, the opening track on her debut album, Tirzah promises a friend that, “I’ll make you fine again”. It’s not just altruistic, it’s also payback. “You make me stronger, so I’m here to catch you/Don’t worry about worries, I won’t let them get you.”
This may sound sweet from the Londoner. It may even sound necessary if you subscribe to the view that it is friends – lovers or not – who will get us through the night and the day after. But it’s more than that here as Devotion is an album coloured by a gnawing sense that lot of the world around us, and the not-always-stellar humans inhabiting our immediate space, are not doing us a lot of good.
Though the lyrics here concern themselves with interpersonal matters – not always ending badly either - the combination of Tirzah’s preference for withdrawn/close-quartered singing, with a musical palette by her co-writer/producer Micachu (Mica Levi) that is itself circumscribed in tone and instrumentation, provides an overarching atmosphere that is in many ways like a less paranoid, less volatile version of Tricky some 25 years ago.
Which is to say, the air feels charged around a relaxed singing voice, the kind that can give you the mistaken impression of sleepy conversation, and you feel more, not less, at ease as you drift into the night.
It’s charged with tension in the guitars that can sound like harps and basslines that can sound like keyboards being played with faders rather than keys, in Gladly. It’s charged with undefined need in the swelling synths and the clashing electric guitar chords of Guilty, and the simple piano and scudding low clouds of bass in the title track.
And it’s charged with a mix of regret and the edge of anger in the clipped percussion and airy keyboard figure of Do You Know, accompanying the mixed messages sung: “The silent treatment doesn’t stop me buggin/The best thing we can do is really talk about it/I was never trying to be cold/But I’m showing you I can be without you.”
In their exploration of a compressed form of R&B (apart from the somewhat claustrophobic textures, there’s the fact the striding pace of Holding On is the album’s one breakout from a small room of mirrors), Micachu and Tirzah sit most comfortably with the likes of Sampha and Solange.
Like them, the London pair walk between romance and hurt (existential as much as emotional), in sound and words that don’t aim for seduction or try to convince you. It’s a strange thing to say that the songs aren’t trying to convince you, but in the space left unfilled, as well as the minimalist elements used to fill the rest of the area, Devotion puts forth a case and a story and leaves it for you to step in.
“I just want your attention, I just want you to listen/I don’t want the solution, I just want to explain things/I’m not looking for reactions, I’m not looking for acceptance/You can come to me with honesty, you can come to me with tenderness.”