Every week, we tell you about an album we think you need to spend time with. This week’s album is Miss Universe, the debut LP from U.K. indie rock sensation Nilüfer Yanya.
Despite the fest’s history as such, it’s pretty rare that you stumble upon a completely unknown-to-you act at SXSW. I’ve been there five times, and can count on one hand, maybe two extra fingers, every time that happened for me. But last year, I went with my VMP compatriots into a showcase to see Nilüfer Yanya, who at that point was a rising, buzzing artist with an EP to her name, and a lot of positive press. I remember being impressed with how confident her sound was — a mix between soft jazz rock and visceral indie rock — and that her saxophonist could really rip. That initial brush with her did not set me up for the sheer power of Miss Universe, her debut LP, though. It’s a confident, bruised and bruising 17-track album that covers self-doubt, trying to define yourself inside and outside of relationships, and living inside of your head. It’s one of this year’s best debuts, a deliverance on all the buzz Yanya had coming into the album.
Raised in London, England, by a pair of visual artists, Yanya pieced the album together over the last two years. As she told our Caitlin Wolper, the album came together narratively in a loose concept around an imaginary app called WWAY Health, a combination of Calm and that standard app on iPhones that tracks your heartbeat through your pocket. Instead of providing a narrative arc for the album, you can see how the WWAY Health app is an added, miserable pressure on the Yanya of these songs, who is stuck in her head (“In Your Head”), who has doubts about a relationship and imagines it breaking from the outside (“Angels”), who knows she can’t be like that unnamed “them” (“Paralysed”), who tries to give herself pep talks and not break down (“Tears”) and who can’t sleep at night (“Heavyweight Champion of the Year”). Yanya is concerned with a variety of internal questions and, like the rest of us, computers are making those questions harder to answer and harder to process.
Sonically, Yanya is capable of going from new jack swing thump (“Tears”) to searing torch song (“Heavyweight Champion of the Year”) to bossa nova (“Melt”) to indie rock stomper (“In Your Head”). Her EPs were heavier on jazz undertones, but over the course of Miss Universe she dabbles in a less-is-more minimalism; often the instrumentation can be as hard to grab as a cloud. Yanya’s voice is as malleable, capable of being airy and soaring, and lower and like an explosion. Her deployment of her voice is as considered as the instrumentation; she knows when to let it loose and when to keep it small.
Miss Universe is full of tiny moments of grace, and large moments of catharsis. You won’t hear a debut album as assured and considered as this one in 2019.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.