Published Jul 30, 2020How can we do better? It's a question that's often asked, but not often enough. Humans don't tend to like it when a question lingers for too long; one way another, we are compelled to find an answer — whether it's the right one or not — or else just let it go. But some questions are meant to be asked over and over. You're meant to spend your whole life trying to answer them.
Thanya Iyer lingers on this question throughout KIND, the Montreal auteur's second album. Fresh and inquisitive, it's a musical collage that reflects deeply and extensively on the things that make it hard to be human — self-esteem, depression, anxiety, grief, pain, bigotry, age, illness, disability — and works its way through a process of self-reflection, self-care and self-love. This journey plays out musically (and visually, thanks to a 20-minute mini-movie accompanying the album) in a way that's full of sonic abstraction and dazzling clarity.
It's not often that you hear music that is virtually genreless. Iyer's work is sculpted out of experimental art-pop, folk, jazz, soul, ambient, influences from across the globe and who knows what else. It could live comfortably in the loosely connected domain of other high-art types like Moses Sumney, Stereolab and Canada's own Tara Kannangara, but really, it lives in a world entirely its own.
Iyer's approach is textural, abstract and often improvisational. With the firmly grounded rhythms of bassist Alexander Kasirer-Smibert and percussionist Daniel Gélinas, Iyer can follow her creative whims — which include the meticulous implementation of keyboards, strings, piano, brass trios, vocal sextets, flautists and harpists — without having to worry about getting lost in all the instrumentation. Refrains and rhythmic themes are often relegated to the background to let the auxiliary instrumentation run wild, but they're always there anchoring the compositions.
Yet even with all there is going on throughout KIND, the songs leave lots of space to linger on a thought. Iyer does just that, picking out a particular lyric and repeating it over and over until it becomes a mantra. She chooses her words carefully, finding the essential source of a feeling. Amid the interstellar, otherworldly sounds of "Alien," it contains only four lines: "Bring me down to Earth / Teach me how to learn / Teach me how to live / Teach me how to love."
Iyer's voice itself is soft and lilting, yet confident and controlled. It's also just as much of a tool for manipulation and experimentation as any instrument on KIND. "I ain't gonna run and hide," she proclaims on the dizzying "My Mind Keeps Running," the knotty, multi-tracked vocal melodies ping-ponging around a room already filled with the shrieking of saxes. In the polyrhythmic haze of "Let the Smoke Clear," she accentuates the off-beats word by word. "No more will I hold on to you, so I let it go," she hums in "Bring Back That Which Is Kind to You," her voice overlapping until it forms its own atmosphere.
These are not quite affirmations; they look for answers rather than providing them and seek peace and harmony rather than providing it. "Please Don't Hold Me Hostage for Who I Am, for Who I Was" is ultimately the clearest distillation of Iyer's vision and talent; it's a pleasant and carefree groove adorned with fluttering flutes and floating harmonies, yet with the ability to jarringly shift into a thumping, jazzy bridge section. It also acts as a summary of the album's main themes: "Take it in your own hands / Make the choice to get better."
It's an album about learning, but there's a lot that KIND can teach us. In order to do better, we must be better. In order to be better, we must be loving. We must be patient. We must be empathetic. We must be kind. (Topshelf)