The London-based artist Nilüfer Yanya has parried expectations with every turn in her brief career, shifting away from the crystalline jazz-pop that put her on the map and transitioning into hypnotizing, minimalist rock. On her debut album, Miss Universe, Yanya has pulled one more trick from her sleeve: crafting an entire world unto herself.
Something of a loose concept album, verging on stream-of-consciousness, Miss Universe tells (in part) a brief, menacing tale of a self-care program called WWAY Health. The first voice we hear on is Yanya’s, but in disembodied, virtual-assistant mode. “We worry about you, so you don’t have to,” the blank, processed voice assures, over new-agey muzak. Seconds later, whiplash: a maelstrom of Yanya’s own making with “In My Head,” a roaring grunge chugger that frets with paranoia and worry.
Miss Universe is filled with plenty of cognitive dissonance between Yanya and her musical surroundings. It evokes a mind in flux, a musical manifestation of spiralling into the seediest, most aggravating thoughts a brain can conjure. “Paradise” marks a return to familiar, jazzy territory, an eerily artificial bliss that finds Yanya on the verge of splitting up with a partner — a pyrrhic romance between two people who can’t exert any effort into one another. “Where do the good things go,” she ask-sighs, as if repeating a nihilistic mantra that carries through the album. On “Tears,” Yanya leans into full-on pop-star mode. She crests a classically trained falsetto over glimmering synths that emote, as the narrator deigns to feel any semblance of emotion.
Miss Universe careens between narratives and genres, an eclectic mix that Yanya tells Dazed is informed by the likes of Kelis, Angel Olsen, Brave New World and Edgar Allan Poe. It’d be a jarring mish-mash if it were not tethered together by her inimitable handicraft. Yanya’s an auteur who can transform herself on the fly in order to create a universe grounded, but no less surreal. She contorts her voice and guitar work to make sounds jagged and slick, upending her voice into yelps and sing-talking as her riffs follow her lead. Her words are sharp, too, abstractions and fictions cut by a snippet of something visceral: “I’ll be lying in a pool of someone else’s blood,” she sings on “Tears.”
At times, the experience of listening to Miss Universe recalls Cary Fukunaga’s sci-fi miniseries Maniac — a sometimes-confounding, always-beguiling dive into the dogged, infuriating quest to handle our neuroses and find a way through.
That’s perhaps made most certain by “The Unordained,” which builds off a lonesome guitar and voice, crescendoing into an anthem for the deeply disaffected. “I can’t look at me ‘cause it brings me down when you hang around,” she sings as the guitars ratchet up, before exclaiming with a glint of glee. “Pure shame, looks like we already made up our minds / It’s getting harder to wake up, but it’s better this way.”
By the time the album reaches its end and we get to “Heavyweight Champion of the Year,” it almost feels as if we’ve exited the simulation, forced to look around at our grim circumstances. “I’m tired / From all these dreams / Lack of sleep,” she chants, as if longing to return to the dreamscape of her making. Fortunately, WWAY Health is here for us.