Album Review: yeule – Glitch Princess

[Bayonet; 2022]

2019’s Serotonin II, the full-length debut from Singaporean-born and London-based songwriter and producer Nat Ćmiel, a.k.a. yeule, showed the artist shoveling the ashes of 20th Century pop, restoking a goth-y, dreamy, darkwave-ish fire. While that sequence employed a slow-burn approach, including occasional, albeit understated, pyrotechnics, the follow-up, Glitch Princess is a series of existential implosions, Ćmiel filtering the pop canon through futuristic despair: the ghost of an AI brooding in programmatic hell.

Opener “My Name Is Nat Ćmiel” unfolds like a suicidal android’s digital diary. “I like being far away from my whole body,” Ćmiel stutters, referring to the experience of dissociation, typically a symptom of past trauma. “I like obsessing over people / then throwing them away,” they continue, copping in a computerized monotone to narcissistic leanings. With “Electric”, they segue into a quasi-conventional pop performance, though their phase-shifted voice and spliced synths conjure a bumpy trip, a virtual odyssey gone wrong.

“Flowers Are Dead” similarly revolves around Ćmiel’s disembodied and alien-sounding voice. Meanwhile a drone-y soundscape unfolds, a blend of sharp-and-flat synths and downtempo beats that brings to mind a paranoid Billie Eilish. The out-of-tune motif is further developed on “Eyes”, which conjures a possible scene from Westworld: a drunk randomly striking the yellow keys of a piano stashed in a dingy saloon while a recycled ‘host’ transcends their codic script. Single, clunky notes tinkle as Ćmiel’s voice dips and soars, alternately karaoke-ish and operatic.

“Perfect Blue” opens with a grungy beat and oscillates between staccato and fluidly psychedelic synths. “I’m sorry I don’t feel good,” Ćmiel moans, their waifish voice and self-deprecating lyrics recalling the glitchier aspects of Grimes’ Miss Anthropocene. Guest-singer Tohji’s suave tenor/baritone reels the piece back from the black hole toward which it drifts. “Don’t Be So Hard on Your Own Beauty” again shows Ćmiel questioning their appearance, identity and worth. On the slow-dance-y “Too Dead Inside”, their whispery voice is swarmed by muscular beats and synth-y blips. They doubt their ability to endure life, an anhedonic robot all but praying for termination.

While Glitch Princess is a compelling album, it occasionally lapses into the pop formulae it proposes to render obsolete. “Bites on My Neck”, for example, rushes its melody and forces its lyrical motif (“When I was stuck in the dark / you gave me a sickness of blue”). “I <3 U” has a caricature-ish, slightly saccharine feel, sounding at once like an outtake from Mitski’s Puberty 2 and a mock-horror/torture-pop demo from Jazmin Bean. Fortunately, the closing track, “Mandy”, is a highlight, Ćmiel delivering a largely spoken-word, self-ravaged confession (“It’s time I did something right”). Harsh beats, screams, noise-blasts, and drone-y synths that wouldn’t be out of place on Kujo’s The Rebels Have No King undergird and then erode their frantic voice.

Ćmiel’s songcraft and production savvy are undeniable. Their vocals and persona are (mostly) distinct. Glitch Princess is consistently inventive, disturbing, and timely. Given the ongoing pandemic, climate change, and escalating global tensions, not to mention the pervasive rise of nationalism and devaluation of democratic principles, Ćmiel and their thanatoid brand may well be the future of pop.