It was somewhere around the halfway point of Devotion, the debut full-length from British singer and songwriter, Tirzah Mastin—specifically, during the Auto-Tuned vocal fuckery of “Guilty,” a glacially paced dirge that finds Mastin intentionally warbling her voice, half singing and half stutter-rapping, against very minimal instrumentation—well, it was around this time when I realized that this just wasn’t going to work out.
Who is Tirzah Mastin?
Mastin, now 30, began a slow rise to prominence around five years ago with the release of two back-to-back EPs—I’m Not Dancing, and then, the following year, No Romance. In 2015, she released a single, “Make it Up,” it would seem that she, and her long-time collaborator and friend, Mica Levi, have spent the last three years or so working to better shape and deepen the ‘Tirzah’ sound; and while it sounds like a solo effort in its name, Devotion is truly the work of both Levi and Mastin, working together.
The subject of both a ‘Rising’ profile on Pitchfork and a ‘Get to Know’ feature in The Guardian roughly a month before the release of Devotion—the album itself garnered ‘Best New Music’ and an 8.3 rating from the former, as well as a glowing, four-star review from the latter, written by Laura Snapes.
But is Tirzah Mastin worthy of this kind of hype and/or praise?
No buddy, not really.
Devotion, sonically speaking, primarily exists where 1990s-inspired R&B, electronica, and trip-hop meet, as well as the spaces left in between after the three messily converge. On paper, it seems, at first anyway, like there’s no way this could go wrong.
Devotion winds up being the kind of record, with all that built in praise and buzz surrounding it prior to its release, that you are on the cusp of enjoying, or that you have to figure out someway to make yourself like it. However, after sitting with this record for, like, over a month, listening to it time and time again, in various settings (the car, my living room stereo, the iPod while I did yard work) and trying to find any easy point of access into it—I have to concede that, despite my best efforts, it just isn’t going to happen.
Trip-hop, in the classic sense of the word (e.g. Portishead, Tricky circa 1995-6) was never really a ‘lively’ genre, per se; but, at that time anyway, there seemed to be an internalized energy to it that made it thought provoking and compelling to listen to.
That energy—or whatever you want to call it, is unfortunately missing from Devotion.
I stop short of saying that this album limps along lifelessly—but it also comes very, very close to earning that description; at roughly 40 minutes, there are times when it feels double that length. Time slows to an absolute crawl, as listening to this album can become a bit of an exercise in patience when it shuffles from one turgid song to the next.
Maybe I’m making it out to sound worse than it really is—or maybe I’m simply ‘not getting it.’
Spread across 11 tracks, there are fragments of it that work. Devotion takes a moment to find its momentum (what momentum it is capable of mustering, anyway) when slides into a slinking, pulsating groove on the skittering “Do You Know.”
Production wise, Levi know what she’s doing here, crafting a beat that walks a very fine line between sensual and carnal, rumbling deep down inside as you can’t help but bob your head to it. A manipulated vocal sample of Mastin asking the titular question comes and goes—so as an instrumental, or a near-instrumental, this would have worked wonders, however, on Mastin’s verses, she sounds bored to tears as she mumbles her way through the song.
The duo never really quite reaches that kind of a groove again on Devotion, though they do try.
“Gladly,” the track that immediately follows “Do You Know” seems to exist in the huge, anticipatory spaces between the steady, rhythmic hits the bass and snare drum. “Gladly” also finds Mastin singing with a little more energy, though her vocal delivery still comes off as being a little reserved, or restrained—a decision that only adds to that bored sounding affect.
Late in the album, Levi and Mastin get an assist from Coby Sey—a like-minded artist, also based out of South East London, with whom Mastin has collaborated with in the past. Sey appears on Devotion’s titular track—his contribution is somewhat limited, however, as his voice appears, mostly manipulated, repeating the phrase “So listen to me,” throughout a bulk of the song’s four minute and change running time.
However, it does have a hypnotic effect on the listener—as does the whole song overall, as Levi crafts a slow burning, slinking groove, with Mastin’s penchant for talk/singing in a lower register actually working to their advantage, and reminded me slightly of the moody R&B of “Timmy’s Prayer” by Sampha.
The rest of Devotion, however, is both at times puzzling, as well as maddening in its overall sense of lethargy.
The album’s opening track, “Fine Again,” is a red flag right out of the gate—the whole piece comes off as more of a warm up than an actual ‘song,’ as myriad keyboards twinkle and flutter behind Mastin, who spends her time shifting between her various methods of vocal delivery, including, but not limited to the low and mumbled, the stuttering, and the restrained attempt at soaring.
“Hold On” is another one of Devotion’s weakest moments. Structured around a repetitive, and kind of obtrusive, dusty sounding drum machine loop, whatever lyrics Mastin manages to utter take a back seat the dated, wonky synthesizer tones provided by Levi. The whole thing sounds like it’s on the verge of falling apart the moment it starts—but not in, like, the charming and ramshackle way. The juxtaposition of the drum machine and the synthesizers doesn’t quite work—there is something that keeps them from folding into each other comfortably, creating a strange tension that never finds release.
One of the things that may be the most frustrating about Devotion is the real lack of cohesion the album has.
I understand that post-R&B, trip-hop, and electronic influences are all, you know, kind of different—but there are places where those things overlap. And one would hope that Mastin and Levi, working together across all 11 tracks, would be able to latch onto that overlap, and find a common ground they can work within.
That is not the case—and there is little, if anything, connecting one song to the next, and that’s very evident in the album’s conclusion. “Go Now” finds Mastin looping her voice saying the phrase, “Letting the phone ring,” as the song itself eases into a late-1990s inspired, R&B vibe. It’s not the most insipid thing I’ve ever listened to, but it’s also not exactly charismatic either.
“Say When” is the token slow jam to inch things a little closer to the ending—absolutely directionless, Mastin allows her voice to wander around aimlessly over the top of effected piano key tinkling and other atmospherics buried deep in the background. All of this arrives prior to “Reach,” the album’s anti-climatic final track. I mean, not every last song has to be bombastic or some kind of grandiose epic, but this is so unassuming, you’re left a little surprised that the album is over.
In other reviews of Devotion, Mastin is praised for writing ‘love songs,’ and I just have to wonder what I’m missing.
I am five years older than Mastin, but am I too old for an album like this? Have I aged out of this kind of music? Is this what a modern love song sounds like—uninspired and uninteresting?
In thinking about Devotion, and Tirzah Mastin, from a critical standpoint, and not just a mildly annoyed listener, I realized that maybe one of the real issues with this record is that, perhaps, Mastin and Levi are not capable, for whatever reason, of carrying a full-length.
Yes, there has been some growth between the duo’s earliest work—Mastin has moved away from the ‘club ready’ sound she had on her first EPs and single, but in cloaking her sound in this weird, claustrophobic, tedious, and boring atmosphere, Devotion keeps its listeners (or at least, me) at an arm’s length, and manages to make one of the least captivating records I have heard in a long time.
If you enjoy being bored to tears, or whatever, Devotion is out now, via Domino Records.
Kevin Krein is a Minnesota based writer, and has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones since January 2013. For nearly as long, he’s been contributing to Bearded Gentlemen; and for nearly as long, he wrote “The Bearded Life” column for the Southern Minn Scene magazine. Since the summer of 2017, he began contributing “The Column of Disquiet” for The Next Ten Words. His writing has also appeared in The Wagazine, and in River Valley Woman. He is a vegan, a friend to all animals, and a huge jerk toward most people.