Album Review: Nilüfer Yanya – PAINLESS

[ATO; 2022]

No matter what its title may imply, Nilüfer Yanya’s sophomore album is anything but PAINLESS. The English-Turkish singer-songwriter’s candor knows no bounds on her latest offering, and the once twisty staircase to her feelings has been straightened. She still harbors all the passion displayed on her debut Miss Universe, but she’s veered away from the spiraling paranoia and anxiety through pure perseverance.

The maturation shown PAINLESS isn’t simply refinement or needless fat trimming. Yanya has carefully sanded the edges of her aesthetic in ways that remarkably bolster her narrative. Gone are the commercial-like-vignettes of Miss Universe, which helps her narrow her scope on this album-length journey of assuredness and escape.

This isn’t a knock on Miss Universe – it is a truly wonderous album with elegance and poise that is often missing in hybrid rock like Yanya’s, but PAINLESS finds her pushing further into her personal life, and she’s able expand concentrated moments and feelings into immersive pop worlds. These worlds are hinted at in the symbolic and engrossing cover art, from cut outs of buildings to wings to soar on.

Opener “the dealer” lays the groundwork for the album’s thematic swings between confidence and self-doubt, Yanya picking apart a soured relationship, aportioning blame on both sides. While unrolling ideas of patience and identity, “the dealer” also shows the harmony between the artist’s words and instrumentation, relying on rhythm guitars and buoyant drumbeats to convey the sense of stillness the song is yearning for.

Nothing quite drives home Yanya’s growth better than “stabilise”, the dance-rock lead single that first forewarned us of her newly robust sound. Yanya’s velveteen delivery blankets this war-song for the ages, “Cuz I’m not waiting / For no one to save me,” she asserts over propulsive programmed drums, while she operates a push-and-pull mechanism in her words. She isn’t afraid or ashamed to commit to moving on, even if there are reservations, and the sonic confidence of “stabilise” makes her uncertainty sound empowering.

Around the new use of electronics, there remains a warm center to Yanya’s sound on PAINLESS. This is focused around “midnight sun”, the melodic and noisy personal protest track that finds its protagonist prepared to fight for survival through dark times. Fight or flight has become synonymous with Yanya’s work, her signature pink wings symbolising escape – but also grace and strength. It’s this polarity that charges her best work, as seen in “midnight sun”, where she’s not fleeing – she’s breaking free; “Whenever I’m not in pain / Whenever I try to explain / To you, we are not the same.”

PAINLESS isn’t just about the survival, it’s about the progress that comes with tackling all the obstacles along the way – and the second side of the album finds her getting a bit more hung up than the gliding, effortless first half. The atmospheric and smouldering guitar jam “trouble” dials down the thrilling nature of the first half of the record to dig a little deeper into the journey. The song’s flashes of struggle and deflation show the flip side of the same confident head-strong personality head on songs like “stabilise” and “chase me”.

This more uncertain tone remains through the lonely lilt of the follow “try”, and hangs over the remainder of the album. “belong with you” is the album’s dagger, the smooth sax-infused pop song detailing the blow-by-blow of a tear-filled and debilitating break-up argument.

It’s only at the closing “anotherlife” that we see the narrative return full circle again. Here, Yanya’s confidence returns as she cuts ties with a flame and this time feels fully comfortable in her decision, even if she has no clue what’s coming next.

Whether her words come from personal experience or not, Yanya’s able to swell with empathy in ways few current songwriters can convey. It’s audible how she places herself within the circumstances of a song, maybe to feel herself, but in doing so she connects with her audience on a different level. Questions are raised every day in the modern world, and while pop music isn’t going to provide answers, if we listen closely to Yanya’s honest words on PAINLESS we can create our own comfort. Patience. Stability. Dealing. Trying. It speaks to everyone on every level, and it’s precisely the kind of message the world needs.