What does it even mean to be “experimental” anymore? It’s a term that’s supposed to connote some kind of wading into uncharted territory, a willingness to push beyond our most subliminally held beliefs when it comes to how we perceive music and, to a larger extent, the world. But the word has increasingly become shorthand for a specific scene of artists today who fit just as neatly into predetermined boundaries as any other genre tag. Sometimes it even feels like these “vanguard” artists are simply catching up to what mainstream culture has been privy to for years, as if the reassessments of nu-metal, EDM, country, or what have you are just the results of somebody finally deciding to slap the art sticker on what they deemed to be previously “lesser” forms. Maybe we would’ve just been better off not turning our noses down at so many manifestations of expression in the first place, as if any style of music isn’t inherently a nesting doll of gateways into understanding who we really are.
Part of what’s made Sean Bowie’s music so captivating over his many scattered projects is that he’s never seemed to put too much stock into being any one kind of artist. Sure, he’s all about that shadowy “who is he?” ambiguity that us critics just can’t ever seem to get enough of, but as Safe in the Hands of Love proves, even he’s willing to cast off the dark shroud of mystery around his work if it means that it’ll set him free. Despite all the disturbing imagery that’s accompanied his debut release for Warp, Yves Tumor’s latest record is shockingly accessible, a huge, explosive rush of song and sound as layered and textured as it is pure and simple. For an artist who’s demonstrated a remarkable ability to evoke moods of melancholy and fear in his music, Safe in the Hands of Love thrives on its intensity and excitement, revealing a side of Yves Tumor that we’ve never seen blossom so fully like this before.
The most striking thing about Safe in the Hands of Love is how utterly straightforward it is; compared to previous Yves Tumor records, which could flit between layered field recordings, slinky R&B, smudged beats, and overwhelming static without batting an eyelash, Safe in the Hands of Love plays like an outright pop record. Tracks like “Noid” and “Lifetime” could be mistaken for a strange approximation of English big beat and early-2000s indie rock with their pounding drums and surprisingly in-your-face vocals, but these moments are ultimately more fascinating for their sheer energy and hookiness than they are for any sort of aesthetic repurposing. Even in its most upbeat moments, there’s always a hidden layer beneath the frame — on the warped 90s pop of “Noid,” Bowie fears for his own life as a “killing spree” rages on outside, while the ruminative chamber music of “Recognizing the Enemy” builds to a voice-shredding climax as Bowie chants over and over, “I can’t recognize myself.” All these nebulous paeans to identity, love, spirituality, and freedom that dot the lyrics and track titles are as immediately relatable as they are obscured by their own vagueness, producing the woozy effect of feeling both closer and more distant from Yves Tumor at the same time.
But even if Safe In The Hands of Love’s deadliest weapon is its simplicity and its rock friendliness, the craft here still feels as nuanced as anything Bowie has ever done. You can hear his love of deep, moody loops in the smeared “Faith In Nothing Except Salvation” and “All The Love We Have Now,” each of which sound like the result of stacking so many low bitrate recordings atop one another until their ugliness becomes its own kind of beauty. Although Bowie only ever seems to deploy his diced-up beats when the moment truly calls for it, “Honesty” demonstrates his fearsome approach to club rhythms, click-clacking back and forth as Yves Tumor asks, “Is this you or your persona?” All this questioning and self-discovery only adds to Safe in the Hands of Love’s almost glam-rock sense of roleplay; even when Bowie dips back into the harsh noise of his past on the bridge of the sensuous trip-hop dirge “Licking an Orchid,” it sounds less like abstract expressionism and more like his twisted version of a sky-tearing guitar solo.
There are traces of the old Yves Tumor here in the sighing, deconstructed R&B of “Economy of Freedom” and the pulverizing feedback assault of “Hope In Suffering (Escaping Oblivion & Overcoming Powerlessness),” but when did we ever really have a grasp on the old Yves Tumor in the first place? Every project Bowie has pursued over the years has felt like an attempt to realize a different facet of himself, with the wild divergence from album to album (sometimes even from song to song; sometimes even within a song) only helping to give us a more detailed portrait of the artist. Although Yves Tumor’s rise to prominence has put a target on his head for every blog and algorithm out there to attempt and nail down exactly who or what he is, Safe in the Hands of Love proves that no amount of definition can really encompass a person’s ever-shifting essence. Bowie’s only consistent trajectory has been one of tearing down his mythos even as his builds it, and his latest manages to knock down yet another wall as he steps more fully into the light than he’s ever dared tread before. On Safe in the Hands of Love, Yves Tumor isn’t concerned with being “experimental;” he’s simply concerned with being.
Via Tiny Mix Tapes