Album Review: yeule – softscars

[Ninja Tune; 2023]

Some people are born on Earth and make their way toward the stars. Others are born in another galaxy and migrate toward the blue orb, only to grieve that they’ve arrived in a place that’s a bit different from what they imagined or hoped for. In the case of Nat Ćmiel, aka yeule, the odyssey began with Serotonin II, which featured a compelling glide through gothy songs and jaggedly textured ambient sprawls. Glitch Princess came next and captured Ćmiel entering our planetary system, even as they presented a well-hewn persona of a far-flung consciousness: the album opened with what might’ve been titled “confessions of an AI” and closed with an almost five-hour instrumental track that sounded like a narcotized scientist filtering cosmic noise through a primitive effects board.

With their latest album, softscars, Ćmiel dreams of nirvana but finds themself pretty much in the purgatory of clashing expectations, polarized wants, and cognitive dissonance. This is to say, conditioning is bona fide regardless of who you are; interstellar bridges are in the making; outer space is no longer outer space, it’s pretty much a Washington, DC suburb, where stock-market updates and excerpts from The Bible are broadcast 24/7. Capitalism and Christianity do indeed demand their emotional tithes, and there’s little to do but scream ‘no!’ as loud as you can. The taxman and preacher are not happy, and neither are great enemies to have.

That said, Earth’s atmosphere seems to be conducive to Ćmiel’s songcraft and ongoing bildungsroman. “sulky baby” finds them foundering/reveling in melancholy. Sex, politics, and family ties are disappointing, and Ćmiel is “emptied out dead / desperate for that feeling of excitement / praying for a planet alignment”. Their voice is more supple and sensual than we’ve heard before, even as they present themselves as anhedonic, numbed by “meaningless space”.

The title song shows Ćmiel riding waves of trashy percussion and serrated synths. Their sense of phrasing and melody are notable, as they strive for a mainstream annunciation that recalls Madonna at her darkest and most demo-y crossed with Rina Sawayama circa her debut. There’s a confluence of pop, futurism, and poetic self-deprecation here that could almost rewrite contemporary XM.

With “ghosts”, Ćmiel offers a plaintive take on “the crush” (“being in love with a popstar”), crashing into a brand of nihilism tantamount to a death wish  (“if you held a gun to my head / I’ll laugh instead”). We can all picture the volatile diva giggling as a frustrated foil jabs his pistol in their direction, not sure what to do next. Think a cross between Tarantino’s Gogo Yubari à la the famous bar-dialogue scene and Westworld’s Dolores Abernathy pre-epiphany, along with a healthy dollop of the damselswain in distress.

“dazies” is a magical mix of psychedelia, turbid folk, and stylized horror, including references to self-mutilation (“biting off the flesh of your own body”), deprivation (“when was the last time you were fed?”), and spiritual exile (“angel cries and cries and cries”). Ćmiel’s voice is at once infantilized and muted; they sound like someone who’s been kidnapped and is plunging into a psychological regression. The mix is dreamy, woozy, sleek, oscillating between austerity and clangor. The instrumental “fish in the pool”, meanwhile, is built around an ethereal piano part that brings to mind Grouper circa Ruins or a drunken Gia Margaret, stark and reverb-washed notes underpinning an atavistic hum.

If “dazies” suggests a disturbing regression, “bloodbunny” spotlights Ćmiel as they collapse into nursery rhymes, pseudo-glossolalia, distress signals, and nightmare codes; “bloodbunny pierced tummy / softscar data / I love you forever forever forever / trauma blue car / drink your nectar / bite into you you bite me too”. Triggers, stream-of-consciousness, portraits of PTSD. A conflagration of confessions, fantasies, resentments, fragmented rage, diluted sorrow, the desperate yearning for connection… with self, another, a place, a higher power? Mark Fisher would probably cuddle up to these gestalts; Derrida would find the guise intriguing – Ćmiel haunted by the universe that never was, the nurturing planet that turned out to be savage, the integrated psyche that wasn’t meant to be. The sweet house on the corner with the pretty flowerbeds and tacky yard art is a monster show.

With closer “Aphex twin flame”, Ćmiel’s voice unfurls au naturel, a delivery that conjures someone waking at 3am, sleeplessly mulling over matters existential, relational, and karmic. As the piece progresses, a sonic welter builds, Ćmiel’s spaceship spewing fumes somewhere in Kansas. “But for you I try to look my best,” she offers, exiting the fuselage while addressing a potential lover and the world at large, brimming as it does with expectations, unspoken rules, and traps. Ćmiel, though, has digested the travelogs and anti-PR pamphlets; she’s self-aware and talented enough to evade the pitfalls. Behind that contorted psychodrama is a voyager who’s attuned to the ways of humankind – eminently capable of engaging on their own terms.