Album Review: Tirzah – Colourgrade

[Domino; 2021]

You’re never quite sure where you stand with Tirzah Mastin. The London-based musician and mother eschews the spotlight but allows listeners into her quietest moments through her songs. Yet, even when listening to her music feels as close as placing your head on her chest and hearing her heartbeat, you never feel like you get under her skin. It’s somehow simultaneously intimate and impersonal.

This worked to great effect on Devotion, her 2018 debut album, which captured hearts everywhere as couples recognised themselves in her deeply romantic but unspecific utterances. Today, Tirzah officially operates as a trio, with long-time producer Mica Levi and regular collaborator Coby Sey now permanent members of the ‘band’. This new distinction seems to have encouraged her bandmates to help push Tirzah’s sound into even more unusual and indefinable spaces on second album Colourgrade – for better and worse. 

The opening title track will feel both alien and familiar to long-time fans. Mastin sings alone to begin with – but her voice is deeply vocoded into a background texture where the words are less important than the tone. When her cleaner (but not untreated) voice starts to sing over the top, the effect is mesmeric – it’s as if her body and mind are singing at once, both expressing the same desire but in different ways. Add to that dizzying whistles and minor bass notes and “Colourgrade” is complete – a monument to simplicity, and something of a template for what’s to come. 

It kicks off a very strong opening of the album. “Tectonic”, much like its title, is slow-moving in pace but earth-quaking in its unguarded expression of desire for physical connection. Mastin’s voice is once again glitchy, giving a robotic timbre to her proclamations like “you know I’m yours and you’re mine”, but the hypnotic low-end and Sey’s voice echoing deep in the background bring more than enough human warmth to offset it. “Hive Mind” is the most similar to the ‘hits’ from Devotion, with a simplistic bass and beat combination underscoring Mastin and Sey’s affectingly simple duet about how their bodies move in sync while their minds “sing different tunes”. 

The earliest songs shared from Colourgrade, “Send Me” and “Sink In”, are placed towards the album’s conclusion – a strange choice given their relative accessibility. Both songs link back to the domestic intimacy of Devotion, but present them with a new range of textures more suited to the surroundings of this album. They’re both beautiful in message and surprising in method, and the album may have been served better by having these songs nearer the start of the record to break up the less accessible tracks.

Instead, the core of Colourgrade features a string of cold, mystifying songs. While the lyrics remain as intimate as ever, the musical surroundings seem to ward listeners away. “Recipe” finds Mastin promising “I won’t hurt you”, but the icy synth planes all around her voice don’t back this up. “Beating” has a simple story at its heart: “I found you and you found me” and “we made life”, with a muffled synth tone mumbling away in the background. While these are usually all that’s necessary for Tirzah to make a lovable song, the inclusion of Mastin clearing her throat and a tape-hiss through the majority makes it hard to hear it as anything more than a demo. 

Even harder to fathom are the next two tracks. “Sleeping” takes us into a quiet night where Mastin is getting some rest as her baby finally sleeps, but rather than accentuate the quietness of the moment, the trio implement aimless electric guitar and what sounds like balloons being rubbed together – it feels completely disconnected from the cooing vocal. “Crepuscular Rays” is, at six and a half minutes, by far Tirzah’s longest song to date, but you’d be hard pressed to say that it justifies the runtime – or inclusion at all. It seems to be six minutes of warm-up, with Mastin and Sey’s dreamy voices wordlessly fluttering on waves of guitar, being warped and expanded, but never with any development or purpose – unless it’s intended as a means of getting her baby to sleep, in which case it is perfect.

Following the aforementioned “Send Me” and “Sink In”, which do get Colourgrade back on track for a moment, the album concludes with “Hips”. It’s one of Mastin’s most vividly lyrical tracks, as she describes a cold entering her mind and body despite the closeness of someone dear, and the frosty synths bubbling underneath certainly accentuate this, but it still feels distant. It’s also a surprisingly frigid way to conclude the album, one that doesn’t extend an invitation for a quick return. 

Somehow, Colourgrade has both brought us closer to Mastin and left us feeling like we don’t know her at all. The term ‘colourgrading’ relates to accentuating or removing light and shadows from an image, and it seems appropriate for this album; at first it might seem like we’re seeing a more vivid image of Mastin, but it only takes a closer inspection to realise the picture has been doctored, and there’s a lot more distance there after all. Ultimately, Colourgrade feels like staying up all night on the couch alongside Tirzah, but rather than chatting away, you exchange the occasional warm remarks, getting no nearer to knowing what’s really going on inside her head.