Throughout the album, Yanya uses circularity and ambiguity to her advantage.
Although the name of Nilüfer Yanya’s debut LP is Miss Universe, its title could just as easily be Mis-universe. Its songs tell of a universe amiss or misused, a cosmos where self, other and sickness inextricably align. This universe is ours, Yanya suggests, and it’s imploding as we speak.
“I cannot tell if I’m paranoid/ Or it’s all in my head,” Yanya sings on the album’s first full track, “In Your Head.” No matter that the two options here are identical: everything is broken, either way or both ways at once. The lyric hints that, even though the LP has comprehensive aspirations, Miss Universe chooses to take on the degradation of all things through just one thing: the individual. “Look at you/ I can’t look at you/ Standing there with all your problems solved,” she spits, her sights on someone specific. These lyrics communicate not only Yanya’s deeply felt disgust but also the idea that this person’s problems are far from over.
Throughout the album, Yanya uses circularity and ambiguity to her advantage, which will be recognizable to listeners familiar with her work to date. “Thanks for nothing, lasts forever,” she sang on 2018’s “Thanks 4 Nothing.” Two separate idioms—“thanks for nothing” and “nothing lasts forever”—merge. Is she bitter that a relationship is over or genuinely disappointed to see it disintegrate? On Miss Universe, we get lines like, “I’m not trying to be someone/ I’m not trying to be someone/ I’m not” (“Safety Net”) and “I stayed up to hear the breathing/ Eyes adjusting to the light” (“Monsters Under the Bed”). New questions arise: Is she not trying to be anyone or trying not to take on a false identity? Are her own eyes adjusting to the light as she listens, or does she really hear the monstrous, breathing eyes of some intruder?
Yet much of the pleasure of Miss Universe resides in Yanya’s distinctive delivery of these lines: her voice is an aching, smoky, sardonic instrument that conveys the power of restraint. Even while her songs occasionally aspire to the epic or monumental, her singing never seems flashy. On “Baby Blu,” for example, distorted and layered vocals build to a resonant climax loosely reminiscent of Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out.” But it’s as if Aubrey Plaza has taken the stage instead, to give us a vitriolic yet reticent stare-down.
And while Aubrey Plaza does play the guitar, I doubt she can play it like Nilüfer Yanya. The impressive range of guitar styles on Miss Universe brings to mind a wide world of indie rock sounds: a Jessica Lea Mayfield-like grunge on “In Your Head,” a Cliff Martinez-esque neon buzz on “Heat Rises,” a quiet kind of squelching effect on “Angels” that recalls Marika Hackman’s “Gina’s World.” Yanya has been playing guitar since a young age (one of her instructors was The Invisible’s Dave Okumu), and her extensive experience with the instrument shows in spades. She supplements her guitar with a number of subtle synthesizer and saxophone parts that expand her sound without impeding it, most memorably on “Melt,” an early 90s-style R&B bop that uses auto-tuned sonics and drum-machine drive to describe the experience of watching someone’s brain cells turn to dark matter.
Several health-related skits round out the album’s 17 tracks. These play up its science fiction aspirations by presenting a make-believe, dystopian phone service that promises assistance in self-care (spoiler alert: the phone service refuses liability for side effects and surveillance without permission). The album is a rebuttal to such antiseptic ideas by insisting instead that we recognize the mess of existence.
The cosmos offers no easy—or clean—options. Miss Universe clearly shows us that Nilüfer Yanya has the verve to recognize this and present it to us from the vantage point of someone stuck here on the trembling ground like everybody else.