The cover art of the latest album from Nilüfer Yanya, PAINLESS, is filled with cutouts of buildings surrounding a city skyline. Trapped below these layers of gray concrete are Yanya’s signature pink wings wishing to take flight and break free. Written just underneath these wings is the word “stabilise,” the name of the album’s first single and possibly meant to provide reassurance and comfort. These sentiments – patience, dealing, stability, and trying – echo throughout the tracklist in an attempt to process all of the uncertainty that troubles life.
PAINLESS comes three years after Yanya’s debut album Miss Universe, a somewhat messy mixture of different sonic and lyrical ideas held together by the conceptual satirization of the self-help and wellness industry. The album garnered critical acclaim for its varied genre palette of lo-fi pop and rock while also demonstrating impassioned songwriting.
In contrast, PAINLESS is not only a more focused album but an insular and emotionally vulnerable project. It was made during the pandemic, allowing Yanya the time and space to dive deeper into the lyrics and sounds she wanted to convey. The album was also more of a collaborative effort with producer Wilma Archer contributing to the writing of many of the tracks. PAINLESS dabbles in darker instrumentation to match its more mature tone by combining late-90s to early-00s-style guitar with a touch of reverb while the vocal delivery features more subtle performances in Yanya’s lower range.
The opener “the dealer” demonstrates this shift in instrumentation. Kinetic drumbeats and fast-paced rhythm guitars provide a sense of urgency that is reflected in Yanya’s lyrics. She recalls a crumbling relationship where both sides are dishonest and hide behind their insecurities. These driving rhythms are also present in “stabilise”. Yanya demonstrates her confidence on the track, “‘Cause I’m not waiting / For no one to save me.” She realizes that a person is the only one capable of saving themselves – “There’s nothing out there / For you and me.” Here, Yanya isn’t afraid to move on and walk her own path.
The album’s second single “midnight sun” is a personal rebellion track where Yanya’s protagonist sees light in the darkest places. The song uses the imagery of a midnight sun, a natural phenomenon where the sun remains visible even during midnight, to stress the speaker’s refusal to accept the experience of dark times as satisfactory. In the track’s associated visuals, Yanya wears angelic pink wings that heavily contrast with the gray buildings and sky that surround her. She’s not running away from her problems but breaking free, with the wings and cathartic shoegaze guitar sounds representing her strength. She’s not afraid, singing, “can’t keep my head down / Don’t like whenever I’m not in pain.”
While the first half of the album exhibits Yanya’s self-assurance and willingness to face her problems head on, the second half finds her in the midst of struggle. This is mirrored in the instrumentation where earlier tracks like “the dealer” and “stabilise” seem effortless in their movement while later songs such as “trouble” and “try” get bogged down in Yanya’s contradictory mindset. The track “trouble” is an intimate portrait of realizing that something can’t be fixed. The drawn out guitar drones build on a feeling of heartbreak along with the lyrics, “Troubled don’t count the ways I’m broken / Your trouble’s won’t count, not once we’ve spoken / What troubles me now if I tear this open.” However, there is beauty present in this heartbreak, and it’s difficult not to get lost in the track’s feelings of longing.
The following songs all show Yanya’s characters trying to escape their state of uncertainty but struggling in one way or another. In “try”, Yanya’s soft vocals attempt to make deep connections with others but cannot. “Silence leaves, I walked / In your forest / But there’s no roots / I am not sure I got this” while “belong with you” incorporates saxophone and aggressive rock-influenced guitar work to escalate a drama-filled breakup argument.
However, Yanya ends PAINLESS with the surprising “anotherlife”. Her self-assuredness comes full circle as she finds beauty in being lost in her uncertainty. This new feeling comforts her and releases all of her pent-up energy. Yanya imagines an alternate reality where she is no longer lost. “In some kind of way, I am lost / In another life, I was not.” The contrast between the warm ‘90s pop production of “anotherlife” and the darker rock instrumentation in most of the other tracks highlights this tonal shift.
Yanya takes her listeners on an emotional journey through the precariousness of life, whether that be in relationships with others or oneself. As opposed to the more pop-influenced sounds in Miss Universe, Yanya relies on tougher instrumentation to portray inner turmoil. But PAINLESS doesn’t sit still with its struggles, instead finding ways to break free. Although Yanya doesn’t provide all the answers, she offers ways that listeners can find little bits of joy through tough times – and that’s often enough.