What makes an album “experimental?” I find myself conjuring ideas of disjointed, percussive sounds joined loosely by discordant vocals that are decidedly difficult to listen to. There is sometimes an uncomfortable calculus made within music criticism which mistakenly suggests that the harder something is to listen to, the ‘cooler’ the artist is. This proverbial ‘cool’ seems difficult to quantify, even harder to attain, and unfortunately, I think, sometimes at odds with the quality of the music. Indeed, think about your favourite album. Now think of the album you would most recommend to the person you were trying to impress. Usually, they aren’t the same. Heaven to a Tortured Mind just happens to be both. Indeed, Yves Tumor’s fourth studio album, his second effort on London’s Warp label, is a sonic feast.
Album opener ‘Gospel For a New Century’ sets the tone: this album may be of the present, but its sights are set far in the future; escapism at its finest and freest. Opening with a wonky rhythm that stops and starts like a skipping record player, the arrangement is orchestral and evocative, reminding me of a film score’s opening music played during the first sequence, introducing the listener to the world they are about to experience. Speaking to a complacent lover, Tumor remains stoic as he walks away, crooning “I think I can solve it. I can be your all, ain't no problem, baby. You can be more but you're heartless, darling, oh. But I've already solved it.” It is up to the listener to decide what, exactly, has been solved.
The second track, ‘Medicine Burn’ marks Tumor’s departure from this world, and descent into his own subconscious, against an instrumental backdrop that sounds like a spaceship taking off, as he speaks viscerally of scarlet-coloured teeth and severed heads, chanting insistently “Carry me away into your spirit. I can't live my own troubles. I've got nothing left to fear but the wilderness.” I know, heavy right? These ruminations continue on tracks like ‘Identity Trade,’ which I put an asterisk next to noting “jazzy séance music?” (I stand by that), ‘Hasdallen Lights,’ named for the unexplained, glowing shapes floating above Central Norway (in case you needed to be reminded that we’ve left Earth already) and ‘Dream Palette,’ which best captures the stereotypical hallmarks of experimentation I described above. It opens with a 0:37 noise solo, so you’ve been warned.
Whilst songs like ‘Dream Palette’ and ‘Folie Imposée,’ (French for “imposed madness,” describing the psychological phenomenon where during a psychotic episode one person forms a delusional belief which is then forced on another) can seem grating at times and occasionally challenging for no particular reason (what Twitter would delight in terming “fake deep”), this deafening musical reflection succeeds most when directed at a precise subject, specifically another human. Take ‘Romanticist,’ a mid-album cut that comes like a train. The lyrics are among the most otherwordly and fantastical, but the significance is unmistakably rooted in human emotion, as Tumor sings “Battered and bruised in your multicolored maze. Your mind is scattered. I've been thinking of the days that I made progress...,” detailing the familiar thought spiral present within a relationship that has run its course but can’t make a clean break.
Although Heaven outwardly presents as one person’s trippy odyssey through their own troubled psyche, this supposed internality belies the collaborative efforts evident throughout the album, constituting the record’s brightest points of light and its most surefooted successes. ‘Kerosene!’, ‘Strawberry Privilege,’ and ‘A Greater Love’ are extraterrestrial love songs with a twist, reflecting human desire and heartbreak as seen through the fish-eyed distortion of a UFO’s window. Particularly, ‘Kerosene!,’ a duet with singer Diana Gordon and co-written with Jeremiah Raisen, plays on the usual tropes of your favourite love songs, featuring the refrain: “I can do anything. I can be what tell you me to be. I can be what you need. I need Kerosene,” before launching into the most unexpected guitar solo mid-song that catches the listener off-guard and saves the sappy lyricism, incorporating the funk guitar of Thundercat with the operatic elements of a ‘Life on Mars?’ era David Bowie.
However, my favourite of Tumor’s many enviable tracks is undeniably ‘Super Stars,’ the album’s eighth song and resident sexy slow-jam, which wears its Prince-like qualities on its sleeve, complete with a squealing electric guitar, tender falsetto, and playful chorus, repeating “Girl, when I'm with you, it's like super stars,” over and over until the listener believes it’s true. Indeed, Heaven to a Tortured Mind is looping in its journey, expansive in its instrumentation and adventurous in its lyricism, promising a sonic pilgrimage for each listener into the depths of their distant imaginations, with a fair few psychedelic detours along the way. My only concern is that ‘Asteroid Blues,’ the album’s sole instrumental track, should have been placed last, providing the auditory complement to the film-score like qualities of ‘Gospel For a New Century.’ I imagine the credits rolling as this song punctuates the background, signalling a boisterous return to earth, or perhaps, takes a hard right further into space. Out to an asteroid and never to return, as the imperceptible chorus of children’s voices forming the song’s outro wish the listener safe travels. Or they might just be aliens.