Nilüfer Yanya is fascinated with pain. The title to her 2018 EP asks the question that seems to be at the crux of her work—Do You Like Pain? A year later, pain appears again on her 2019 debut. The album’s narrative, presented through a demented wellness clinic, consistently grapples with the broad implications of pain. On the ‘“Sparkle” GOD HELP ME’ interlude, Yanya directly asks the visitors of her maniacal health institution: did you experience “Extreme Pain?”
The London guitarist and songwriter has returned in 2022 with her sophomore album, resolutely declaring herself “PAINLESS.” There’s an obvious irony in naming an album “painless,” notwithstanding that it’s in all caps. She’s boldly asserting that she’s free of pain, yelling it, placing it in big typeface for it to be as clear as possible for all to see and read. It begs the very simple question (and one with a very simple answer): is she really painless?
Unlike other contemporary indie artists that slow down, wallow, or dance through it, Nilüfer Yanya uses the emotive power of her guitar to channel her complicated relationship with pain. This is a rock record—one that embellishes in the tried-and-true method of guitar playing as a means of catharsis.
But for all its expressiveness and grappling, PAINLESS is an immensely enjoyable listen on a primal level: “the dealer” starts the album off with urgent drums, the guitars propelling the track with vibrancy. When Yanya stretches her voice with the lyric “I don’t think I’ll ever know” on “L/R,” it’s a grace note, endlessly catchy and satisfying, and an excellent transition into the strut of the chorus. “shameless” opens with layers of guitar, a bit crunchy, a bit distorted. PAINLESS is full of these textured moments, and they hit the same source of endorphins as the guitars on a St. Vincent album like Strange Mercy.
Yanya is a versatile player, and she uses her full range across the breadth of the album. The arpeggios on “midnight sun” and “trouble” recall Jonny Greenwood’s delicate playing on In Rainbows; “chase me” sounds almost industrial; the 80’s shimmer on “shameless” recalls Avalon-era Roxy Music; the chorus on “stabilise” tries out dream pop, sounding like a sped-up Beach Boys guitar on a cloudy day. These approaches don’t feel like genre-hopping explorations. The album is consistent in its polish, united by Yanya’s warm, almost androgynous vocals. While her (still excellent) debut felt a bit overstuffed with mid-tempo glossy tracks, the songs on PAINLESS have a bit more individuality, and they give way to a wider emotional range.
Miss Universe cast a wide net: it’s a more conceptual album, replete with voice-over interludes and the bitter finality of “Heavyweight Champion of the Year.” PAINLESS aches. Yanya sings over and over “I belong with you,” never quite getting to a shout. Her pain is tense and constant, and it never quite reaches a resolution. The album closes with Yanya singing “I can’t stop,” barely audible over the track’s atmosphere and instrumentals. She’s not surrendering to the thoughts she keeps “locked away,” but she is quietly glancing at them.
PAINLESS is not an album about being free from doubts, grief, or heartache. But it is about coming to terms with their presence—it’s an acknowledgement of pain, not an absolution of it.
PAINLESS is out now.