Nilüfer Yanya: Miss Universe review – anxiety dreams from a true original

(Ato Records/Pias)
Full of 21st-century disquiet, the singer-songwriter uses skits and skewed alt-rock to take aim at the spurious ‘wellness’ industry

In 2014, Nilüfer Yanya, then 18, uploaded a couple of tracks to SoundCloud. The generic tags attached to Waves and Cheap Flights suggested they were #indie and #alternative, but there seemed to be a number of directions the embryonic artist behind them might conceivably take, some more interesting than others. The echoing guitar accompaniment bore the influence of the xx; equally, she displayed an easy way with melody that suggested mainstream pop. Meanwhile, a canny record label with an eye on the money to be made in the middle of the road might have noted the honeyed, sultry vocals and pushed her in the direction of Radio 2-friendly retro-soul.

The tracks were followed by a succession of singles that suggested something more individual was happening. If you were searching for a comparison that fitted 2016’s Baby Luv and Small Crimes, you could have done worse than 6 Feet Beneath the Moon, the debut album by King Krule, with whom she shared a penchant for undistorted, electric guitar-based minimalism and a voice that flitted between a soulful croon and something more slurred and strange, more obviously a product of 21st-century London. Even so, you probably couldn’t have predicted where Yanya has ended up, five years later. Her debut album is a loosely conceptual work, centring on a satire of those organisations that crop up unbidden on social media and promise you a holistic programme of constant care and coaching support that will enable you to kick the booze, drop a dress size, sculpt your abs or otherwise improve your life beyond your wildest imaginings.

It feels a little like the Who’s 1967 album The Who Sell Out, updated for an age in which commercial pirate radio has been usurped by streaming services, but the advertising bombardment remains the same – at least if you decline to pay a subscription fee. An age in which the vendors of spot cream, deodorant and bodybuilding courses have been displaced by companies flogging a spurious notion of “wellness”. In between the mock adverts, Miss Universe throws up a ragged miscellany of styles – rackety alt-rock, radio-ready pop, saxophones that appear to have escaped from a Sade album, jagged left-field guitars, primitive drum machines and what sounds like an attempt to make the kind of 80s AOR ballad that’s popular with Magic Radio on a lo-fi, bedroom-bound budget – all blessed by the melodic facility already in evidence when Yanya made her debut. The sense of an artist who could have taken any number of paths, but decided to amble off road instead, is hard to miss.

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