From his surreal sounds to his uncanny visuals, French musician Yves Tumor defies genre
The oldest image on Yves Tumor's public Facebook page is a recreation of the Kerry James Marshall painting "A Portrait of the Artist as a Shadow of His Former Self." In the painting, a man with a gaptoothed grin lurks under a broad-brimmed hat worn askew. His face and hat and clothes disappear into the black background, so that only his shirt collar, eyes and teeth are visible, which in person obfuscates the line between figure and background more thoroughly than the scans you can pull up online. Tumor's version obliterates that line completely: eyes and teeth hang in space with no boundary to contain them. A little to the right of the smile, where the artist's ear would be, two pinpoints of light peer out like UFOs.
It is not hard to find a photograph of Yves Tumor. The artist appears on the cover of the 2016 album Serpent Music and this year's Safe in the Hands of Love. Press photos accompany press releases about Tumor's music. But it is hard to imagine what Yves Tumor looks like. Each photo looks self-contained, as if it did not correspond to an individual who carries the same face through life but belonged to a singular moment that has passed and cannot be recreated. Serpent Music's Ophelia in red lace has nothing to do with the blonde, blue-eyed zombie who lounges in a patterned jumpsuit in a recent press shot. Yves Tumor wears wigs and makeup and contact lenses not to accentuate a core self but to hollow out the very idea of the artist as a narrative vector. The artist is not someone who lives and learns and imparts that learning through music. The artist appears for a moment and then vanishes entirely.
Tumor's music also seems to be shedding its skin as quickly as it grows it. Loose, free-associative melodies crash into spoken-word segments; bright string samples hover over anguished howls; a massive drum loop crowds out a tentative falsetto. Tumor's Warp debut, Safe in the Hands of Love toys with the idea of pop music as a cultural form but doesn't content itself with merely replicating its parts. Lead single "Noid" obliquely references Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" in its warm, rounded bassline, brisk drumbeat, and pained naming of family members: "Sister, mother/Brother, father/Have you looked outside?/I'm scared for my life," Tumor sings in a strained rasp. But there are gaps in what would otherwise be a soul song. Sampled strings cut in and out, like they're playing on a broken turntable. The drums and bass are mixed too high; the voice too low, as if fighting for space. "They call it a sickness/PTSD, depression/Safe in the hands of love/That's where I feel the pressure from," Tumor sings. The bridge hits and it's like the floor opening up: Human screams and wailing guitar notes swarm the lead vocals as Tumor repeats the first verse. The same words roll through, but with their sunny veneer stripped. The upbeat melody starts to drown in the horror it conceals.
The balance between voice and instrumentation, between words and the music in which they're couched, teeters on the brink of danger throughout the album. Listening to Safe in the Hands of Love can feel like climbing a tower that's collapsing. Let your attention hook onto a phrase or a melody and Tumor will divert your attachment, send it thrashing upstream. A duet at the core of the album, "Licking an Orchid," musically integrates the nonchalant gender play that Tumor often teases visually. "I can't/Be the only girl for/You," Tumor sings. In a breathy head voice, James K responds, "I'm trying not to lose my/Only baby girl/To a toxic world." The girl, the cornerstone of the pop duet, manifests in a voice most commonly associated with cis masculinity, while the girl's lover sings in a voice likely to be considered feminine. It's a simple reversal, and subtle: not so much a pointed attempt at genderfuck as a brief opportunity for voice to detach from gender—for voice to be its own story, unmoored.
The Yves Tumor project necessitates a good deal of patience for the uncanny. Listening to this music, looking at these images, and holding the idea of their creator in mind forces you to reckon with an abundance of gaps that cannot be filled: a missed beat, a striking lyrical enjambment, a costume rich in detail but lacking in context, the complete lack of the musician's usual context in general. In interviews, Tumor elides personal details, pointing the interviewer and the readers to the music instead. The music bears similar lacunae, gesturing not to the artist but out from the artist toward an ill-defined, uncomfortable space. The communication emerges not in what's said but in what's missing, and in what the mind does to make up for the void.
In the artwork for "Noid," Yves Tumor crouches in an empty room. The first thing you see are the eyes, because one of them is covered in a contact lens that makes the pupil into an inverted star. Dark shadows circle the eyes, making the whites pop; the rest of Tumor's face is a dark, slippery green, a tone that could be makeup or a trick of the light. A wig flares out in all directions, evoking Tina Turner. Tumor wears a tight jumpsuit, patterned all over with black and white stripes, like an optical illusion by way of Bowie, and yellow patent leather go-go boots. At this point your eye might drift to the background, to the decrepit room. There's a horizon, which helps ground the piece, a seam where the pale floor meets the pale wall. Objects—mousetraps?—glint at the back of the room. The scene evinces all the marks of glamour—makeup, wig, killer heels—and yet is utterly unglamorous in the way its parts congeal. What gets me are the hands: nails short and painted black, some stray rings, a beaded bracelet. Tumor's fingertips are covered in the same gray dust that coats the floor. One relaxes, fingers curled, thumb and forefinger gently pressed together. It's a hand that could belong to someone sleeping. The other paws the floor, threatens to breach the lower edge of the frame, as if Yves Tumor were coiled tight and ready to pounce.
A year ago, I saw Yves Tumor perform during a music festival in Montreal. It went like this: the lights go out, casting the church into darkness. Two tall, ceremonial candles flanking the altar are lit. Then there's the sound: a towering static, loud enough to jostle the diaphragm. Fog pours from the wings. It's hard to see much of anything: the stage, the audience, the artist who's supposed to play. There may or may not be an artist here. But people toward the front of the church start taking flash photos on their phones, the way you're not supposed to at these things, and in these slashes of light a figure emerges. At first it seems like a hallucination, something cooked up by the subconscious to make sense of the scene; then there's a wheelchair, and a person in the wheelchair: topless, immobile, wearing a Halloween mask painted with an awful rictus. The person is so still you might think you're looking at a dummy, until a flash captures the texture of the bare skin. The static rolls on, unchanging. After maybe half an hour the fire alarm goes off. No one evacuates. Everyone stands in place while the alarm screeches and white lights blink. Five minutes later the candles go out, the noise shuts off, and the lights come up to an empty stage. That's the show.
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