It’s easy to indulge in cliché when writing about Yves Tumor. Their backstory spools out as a very particular, rarefied version of the classic rock’n’roll dream: the artist also known as Sean Bowie grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, a place they’ve since described as a “very conservative, racist, homophobic, sexist environment”, before escaping to California aged 20. There, they met fellow genre-splicer Mykki Blanco and eventually the kinds of people who’d guide them through the maze of the music industry over the subsequent decade. Since then, Sean Bowie has become Yves Tumor, living across the US and Europe before eventually settling in Turin, all the while releasing explorative, multivalent music and operating at the glamorous intersection of haute couture, fine art and experimental sound.
Yves Tumor has, therefore, been on a real ‘journey’, creatively and geographically; they embody the ‘chameleonic’ qualities of middlebrow icons like David Bowie and Radiohead; they are, if not exactly a ‘small-town kid done good’, certainly someone from a relative backwater finding international success via an uncompromising artistic approach. For better or worse, the story of Yves Tumor can be understood as the classic tale of the creative rebel overcoming the small-minded adversity of their origins: in this reading, a certain radicalism is present, partly due to the sheer imagination of Tumor’s music, but it’s individualised rather than counter-hegemonic, the character arc of an outsider breaking into the art world through a narrow gap rather than threatening its stifling traditional structures, its specifics perfectly compatible with the coffee tables of the streaming age.
In this way, it can sometimes feel like the narrative for Yves Tumor has been predetermined, precision-engineered to tick all the right boxes for a certain kind of ‘tasteful’ (to use a loaded word), middle-aged music fan. The cultural theorist Joe Kennedy captured this guy perfectly in his 2018 book Authentocrats: the kind of centrist dad who, far from being into Deep Purple and aviator sunglasses as a popular reading of that meme might have it, ostentatiously cultivates his love of Observer-approved good taste – Kraftwerk, the Giro D’Italia, the Liberal Democrats – while confidently dismissing anything that might be a little more antagonistic, awkward or even just flatly mass-cultural (“don’t encourage them, Jeremy!”). For all their frequently-professed love of Aphex Twin, Green Man and “actually some really cool grime”, such people are just as susceptible to big choruses and conveniently primary-coloured stories as the Oasis fans they like to deride as, you know, just not getting how much better Pulp are when you really think about it. Less 6 Music Dad than Freak Zone Divorcee, this man (and it definitely is a man) has heard that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.
It’s not that Pulp and Kraftwerk aren’t any good, or that Yves Tumor solely appeals to the kind of people who think TV reached its zenith as a form with Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. But Yves Tumor is the kind of figure that it would be easy for certain gatekeepers to ruin for everyone else, declaring them a ‘real artist’ without unpicking what that actually means, while lauding this individual for their exceptionality while remaining pretty comfortable with the rules staying as they are for the rest of us. This is not an artist who ought to be reserved for the self-appointed pop intelligentsia, Sunday supplement-friendly subversion to be filed safely alongside Autechre and Sapiens. Yves Tumor is for everyone.
Praise A Lord Who Chews But Which Does Not Consume; (Or Simply, Hot Between Worlds) is, title aside anyway, the most emphatic statement of that genuinely mass-appeal ambition from Yves Tumor yet. This is direct, maximalist pop music, bristling with ambition and as stylish in delivery as we’ve come to expect from Tumor. There’s a temptation to write something along the lines of “Yves Tumor should be topping the streaming charts, filling arenas, headlining festivals”, etc. – but that runs a real risk of invoking our divorced friend again, sounding off about what he thinks his kids should really be into nowadays. With that in mind, all I’m saying is that if Yves Tumor did suddenly begin selling out football stadiums, I’d have no complaints. Imagine the chorus of a track like ‘Meteora Blues’ thundering across a crowd of thousands, the igneous bass bouncing around the flailing masses as the insistent vocal hook pirouettes overhead. Considering the runway-ready presentation of the Yves Tumor live band, it’s not much of a leap to picture them on such a stage.
Opener ‘God is a Circle’ is a scratchy uncut gem of sardonic melody and flickering noise, the implicit vulnerability of the lyrics (“Everything around us feels unclean / My momma said that God sees everything”) lent a sharp edge by a scorched guitar arrangement, adding up to a shivering, caustic whole that sounds like Suicide covering Elliott Smith. This is followed by ‘Lovely Sewer’, which may be Praise A Lord…’s most transcendent moment, with guest vocalist Kidä stepping into the limelight for a sunbeam chorus that throws the jagged contours of the track’s drill-tight production into gorgeous relief.
Like a lot of truly great pop, Praise A Lord… regularly flirts with the ridiculous. ‘Heaven Surrounds Us Like A Hood’ centres upon a cartoonish guitar riff of Faith No More proportions, while the open-shirted shredding that’s become a feature of Tumor’s gloriously OTT live shows manages to butt into more or less every track here. To be honest, there’s a slightly naff swagger to the whole thing, which would be unearned, Red Hot Chili Peppers-esque, were it not for the dark underbelly of the arrangements or the subversive intelligence of the songwriting. It’s all quite knowing, but never alienatingly so. Tumor even makes this artifice explicit on the fittingly-titled ‘Parody’, before getting to the heart of this record – this creative role – with a seemingly throwaway line towards the end: “A parody of a pop star / You behaved like a monster / Is this all just makeup… What makes you feel so important?” Here, they are acknowledging the essential theatre and surface of pop music; yet as they break the fourth wall in this way, we’re all invited to join in. The parody – the persona – is telegraphed for everyone, a whole track dedicated to making it clear; it’s not just for the handful of dickheads who’ve spent a lifetime reifying their position as ‘in the know’ to understand this music ‘on multiple levels’, or whatever.
Through all these clichés and this depiction of a particular kind of self-designated quasi-academic music fan, I’m aware that it’d be easy to accuse this review of anti-intellectualism or, frankly, projection. To rail against the gatekeepers of good taste while writing about music for a living is to skate on thin ice at best, and some of the worst people in the UK media (imagine the ground that covers) have forged disgraceful careers through attacks on sophistication, earnestness or knowledge, in doing so assuming the worst of ordinary people. So to be clear: intellectualism and scholarship are to be encouraged, and there’s nothing wrong with formulating your identity around the culture you love. But the tendency of far too many well-remunerated commentators to idealise one version of intellectual and artistic sophistication at the expense of any others, and to dismiss as inauthentic the efforts of the young, the working class and the marginalised to express themselves in new and creative ways (I’m borrowing heavily from Kennedy again here), is downright reactionary. And what’s so great about Yves Tumor is the way in which they show how silly such commentary can be without even trying.
On Praise A Lord…, Yves Tumor embraces the essential camp and superficiality of pop stardom with invigorating levels of both artistic invention and inclusive sincerity. It’s a project of self-realisation, the outsider becoming the star, but it’s also about you being able to do the same if you want to. The hooks are massive and plentiful (‘Lovely Sewer’, ‘Echolalia’, the careening, Dilla-in-space sample of ‘Purified by the Fire’); the lyrics expertly meld romance, reflection, queerness and candour (“Sweet boy / You know you look just like your mother / Sweet girl / She said I talk just like her father… For a moment we became each other” – ‘Heaven Surrounds Us Like A Hood’); the production is smart and questioning, throwing genres together with abandon; there are even a couple of uninhibited robo-rock bangers in which all thematic and stylistic constraints are chucked right out of the window (‘Operator’, ‘In Spite of War’). It’s the work of an artist who is too restless, too ambitious, in some ways too pure, to be reduced to cliché, even if that cliché comes with the seal of cultured approval. This is truly vital pop music: nothing more – but what more could you want? – and certainly nothing less