From a genre standpoint, Nilüfer Yanya has always been hard to pin down. She’s typically billed as an R&B singer-songwriter, but even that description fails to capture the many sounds that can make up the prototypical track from her—the smooth yet hesitant voice, the clockwork percussion, the synths that fade in and out without warning.
Across her new album PAINLESS, some of Yanya’s disparate sonic touchstones summon old-school comparisons to Sade, Fleetwood Mac, and Radiohead. And frenetic opening track “the dealer” brings to mind ’90s acts like Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, and PJ Harvey. Such descriptions could make the album sound like an exercise in shameless nostalgia; it’s anything but—these songs, with their unique combinations of heartbreak, wit, and poignancy, sound both familiar and uniquely like Nilüfer Yanya.
Yanya’s voice, both grounded and airy, slides across PAINLESS’ 12 expertly crafted and unusually somber love songs. If you were looking for an emotional centerpiece to the album, early single “midnight sun” fits the bill nicely. “Love is raised by common thieves, hiding diamonds up their sleeves,” sings Yanya, while a plaintive guitar and midtempo beat click in unison. “You’re my best machine,” she continues, “you’re my midnight sun. Always I did it for you.” These lyrics, ripe with imagery and ambiguity, are typical of Yanya’s verses on PAINLESS, and when paired with her haunting melodies, they serve as strong foundations for this material. But even the more conventional numbers like “Shameless,” with its traditional lovelorn balladry and timeless premise (“Why do I lie here left needing your touch? Under it all I’m shameless, until you fall it’s painless”), leave Yanya’s personality shining through.
Producer and musician Wilma Archer also deserves credit for giving the album its uniquely contrasting sound; much of the instrumentation is crisp and tangible, while its overall feel remains murky and mysterious. “Try,” a dark waltz featuring acoustic guitar that sounds for all the world like a plucked violin, is a prime example of Yanya’s and Archer’s synergy. In its mournful paeans, the song brings to mind the work of late-’90s British singers Dido and Beth Orton, both of whom, like Yanya, deftly wield their breathy vocals in the service of a powerful track.
Also in the mix is Jazzi Bobbi, a London-based producer, musician, and songwriter who helmed much of Yanya’s previous LP, the equally ambitious 2019 album Miss Universe. Like that album, PAINLESS is both confident and restless, headstrong and woozy, and Bobbi’s presence is invaluable. On “belong with you,” for example, Yanya repeats the phrase “I belong with you” until it starts to lose meaning; she ends up sounding like an obsessive restating a hope until it comes true. In the background we hear distorted guitars, a high-pitched saxophone, and swirling synths. The song sounds like a fever dream pulling Yanya’s narrator under, and it’s mesmerizing.
Bullion, the stage and recording moniker for the producer and musician Nathan Jenkins, also provides a subtle touch, as does Andrew Sarlo, a veteran indie producer of acts including Big Thief and Local Natives. Sarlo rounds out the roster with a sole contribution, “the mystic,” which is a hazy, moody, inhale of a song before the arrival of Bullion’s gorgeous closer, “anotherlife.”
Despite this varied credit list, PAINLESS is remarkably consistent in sound and quality. This, too, is typical of Yanya—since Miss Universe, she has released a few EPs, all of which feature standout songs that PAINLESS equals in emotional range. (The bittersweet “Day 7.5093” from her Feeling Lucky? EP may be her career best.) Part of that consistency is due to Yanya’s musicianship; her guitar playing, sharp and covered in reverb, provides a familiarity that gives her songs just enough warmth before they unravel.
Moments on PAINLESS that don’t fully register act as lulls before storms. The quietly chugging “chase me” leads into “midnight sun,” and the stark, lo-fi “company” brings the listener into the stormy “belong with you.” While more forgettable than the songs that follow them, they make the greater emotional intensity of those subsequent tracks stand out even more.
It will be interesting to see where Nilüfer Yanya, only 26 and showing no sign of slowing, goes from here. She seems content using her many musical interests to create a sound that’s uniquely hers; the question is whether that blend will continue to evolve beyond PAINLESS. If her transition from the more intimate EPs to the broader canvas of this latest record is any indication, her scope will only grow.