Yves Tumor revels in mystery. For five years now, the R&B collagist, singer, and producer has evaded even the most elementary biographical questions with a sort of philosophical wink: Why limit himself or his future output by allowing people to indulge in expectations formed by an arbitrary past? To wit, one of the few facts known of his background—that he was raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, surrounded by white kids listening to grunge—has sometimes been delivered with an ahistorical air of stereotypical disbelief, as though it were somehow confounding that such provocative and pioneering music should stem from the South.
Last Wednesday, on a day not reserved for releasing full albums through proper labels, Tumor indulged in a little defiance: He issued Safe in the Hands of Love, his debut LP for the legendary Warp Records, with no more warning than a string of excellent online singles. These ten tracks frame their own surreal world, a place where R&B and harsh noise, alternative rock and IDM, ambient production and soulful drums not only commingle but bend into one another. Tumor doesn’t merely ignore ideas of genre and borders on these ten songs; he makes the very sound of those boundaries breaking a central part of everything he does. Safe in the Hands of Love is a sudden and absolute album-of-the-year candidate. As Pitchfork raved in a coveted “Best New Music” review last week, “It dwarfs everything the artist has released by several orders of magnitude. The leap is so audacious it’s disorienting.”
Safe in the Hands of Love tells us more about Tumor than we’ve ever known. His voice, for instance, is as capable of conjuring extreme emotional upheaval within the skittering alternate-universe pop hit “Noid” as it is basking with seraphic glow inside a broken dubstep beauty, “Economy of Freedom.” (There were only traces of his voice on 2016’s great but, in retrospect, embryonic Serpent Music.) And collaboration is an essential thread within Tumor’s patchwork aesthetic, with the likes of Croatian Armor and James K. stretching both the scale and scope of his work.
But the miracle of Safe in the Hands of Love may be that, even as we learn more about Tumor by hearing his new music, we seem to know less and less about him. Even the most direct moments here—the plaintive verses of the dance-ready “Honesty” or the irrepressible chorus of “Lifetime”—retain a sense of the enigmatic. And the more amorphous numbers, like the ambient amoeboid soul of “All the Love We Have Now,” feel like musical illusions, meant to make you search inside for the real Yves Tumor. Even the title is a feint, as there’s nothing safe about the love Tumor portrays here; instead, it can drive us mad with regret and longing and lust and self-loathing. Safe in the Hands of Love raises more questions than it answers: Are these songs internal confessionals or external observations? What are Tumor’s sound sources here, or what is the division between what he has recorded himself and sampled from history’s dustbin? Will he continue to step into his soul-singing role, slink deeper beneath the noise, or continue to forge a path between the two?
There is so much going on within Safe, so much more to explore than a half week of listening could ever reveal. This is a record that people will still be pondering long after Yves Tumor returns (briefly) to Knoxville, Tennessee, in March 2019 to perform at Big Ears. But these songs make it instantly apparent that Tumor is a major new artist whose emotional vocabulary is as intricate and idiosyncratic as his musical one—and that he’s willing to bleed both onto tape for us, even if he’s reluctant to share so much as his real name.