Album Review: Tanya Tagaq – Tongues

[Six Shooter; 2022]

“I do not want complacent Canadians to be able to turn their head.” That’s Inuk throat singer and experimental artist/musician/writer Tanya Tagaq in a recent interview talking about why she made her latest album, Tongues. The record – completed alongside producer Saul Williams and Gonjasufi on the mixing deck and originally meant to come out in 2020 – is a carnal and wrathful one, full of indictment and unfettered rage. “I’m just completely done with the narrative of complacent Canadians,” she adds in the aforementioned interview.

As the atrocities of Canada’s colonial past come more and more into the light, the need to speak out and comment on how an entire indigenous group suffered for generations (and still suffers) becomes only more necessary. Tagaq’s no-holds-barred approach reckons with it head-on. Over a creaky, squeaking violin and textured percussion on “Tongues” she states “You can’t take that from us / You can’t have my tongue” with a direct, matter of fact delivery. Elsewhere on the vicious album centrepiece “Teeth Agape”, with its unspooling tape synths, she threatens “Touch my children / And my teeth welcome your windpipe” with tangible, salivating, and pointed fury. It is – as exactly intended – uncomfortable to listen to.

Tongues is not an easy listen in any kind of traditional sense, but it’s hardly aiming to be. Tagaq is far off from throwing shade or knowing glances; she points fingers with excoriating terror, like Donald Sutherland’s famous final scene in Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, but with the weight of real history behind it. Over a trip-hop beat and washed out synths on “I Forgive Me”, she reckons with her ancestral heritage (“The past has birthed the bricks that build my bones”) while taking aim at rapists with an unforgiving eye (“Do not forgive and forget / I protect and prevent / Make them eat shame and repent”).

“Colonizer” builds to a fevered fury over an industrial shuffle with little more than Tagaq repeating the same titular phrase over and over, not so much hammering the point home as she drilling it directly into your skull. When her desperate panting and the chattering beat line up, the whole thing grinds hard – despite the condemning subject matter. Tongues might make you squirm, pay attention, and reckon with yourself, and if it does, then Tagaq has done her job.

While it’s impossible to separate Tagaq’s lyrics from everything else here, it’s worth noting the other features of her voice; just as important as her words is her delivery. When she’s not eliciting stark responses with her Inuk throat singing skill, she’s laying severe and deliberate emphasis on every word she says. She carefully utters each syllable: on “Teeth Agape” she lingers on the final two letters of the word “teeth”, sharpening the effect all the more; “In Me” jumps from plainspoken to demonic in an instant; and on “Birth” her wail is high-pitched and mosquito-like, capturing that feeling of a new-born entering the world from the embryonic realm. The way she uses her voice here is like listening to a photo negative of ASMR: made to worm into your ear to make you uneasy.

And even amidst all this, there are moments of tenderness. Penultimate track “Do Not Fear Love” feels like matriarchal advice to both Tagaq’s own daughter as well as all daughters in the world: “Reap eat chew swallow devour / All the goodness and love that is given to you,” she advises. (Like other instances here, the lyrics from the track are taken and adapted from Tagaq’s novel Split Tooth.) The following, final track “Earth Monster” strips away much of the noise, leaving pausing pulses of airy synths to help carry her spoken-word ode to her daughter. “My earth monster / My celebration / Today is for her, and today is for me,” she speaks, on the verge of incanting. Much of Tongues may speak to the masses, but it also comes back and speaks to the individual. Tagaq is here to denounce, warn, and even threaten, but also to advise and support those at risk. She will turn heads with Tongues, and we would all do well to listen intently.