The ‘album of the year’ concept always troubles me. I’ve already played the two records (Owen Pallett and Wild Beasts) that would probably occupy the slot of my ‘favourite’ from 2014, and didn’t want to repeat, so I decided to play something that I like a lot and think deserves wider exposure. It’s not my favourite from the year, or probably even in my top five favourites, but I do admire it massively.
Although I already own an album featuring Tanya Tagaq (she guests on Björk’s Medulla), I wasn’t aware of her as an individual musician in any conscious way until September 22 this year, when Animism, her fourth solo album, won the Canadian Polaris Prize – an award that, to be reductive, is roughly equivalent to our Mercury Music Prize.
The Polaris is considerably more esoteric and generally rewards more creative music than the Mercury, though; although past winners include stadium-indie behemoths Arcade Fire and Apple-ad star Feist, they’ve also included scatological Dungeons & Dragons chamber pop star Owen Pallett, jazz & psyche tinged electronica darling Caribou, and anti-establishment post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. No M People or Alt-J in sight. It’s tempting to use this as evidence that Canada is some kind of cultural nirvana, but Bryan Adams and Celine Dion prove this isn’t quite the case.
So it’s not that much of a surprise that an album of orchestral and electronically enhanced Inuk throat singing should have won in 2014. It was Tagaq’s triumphant performance at the Polaris gala that caught my attention, and that of plenty of other people, judging by the way a YouTube clip of it feverishly seeded around social media in the days afterwards; an 11-minute improvisation wherein she led an orchestra, someone doing something with electronics, and a choir of throat singers through ecstatic and anguished guttural howls, percussive interludes, and an absolute gamut of emotions and vocal approaches. The performance was in front of a projected list of the names of hundreds of missing and murdered Inuit women. It was genuinely unlike anything I’d ever seen or heard. The presenter guy, astonished, could only manage to blurt out: “I mean HOLY SHIT! Was that something else or what? That was fucking… My God! Amazing! That was amazing!”
I ordered Animism pretty much on the spot.
And it didn’t disappoint, although it pretends it might; the opening track, “Caribou” (which Rob and Tom identified as a cover of the Pixies tune, which I hadn’t realised), is a bait-and-switch, offering the listener an almost by-the-numbers orchestral pop song, albeit beautifully recorded, wherein Tanya sounds a little like Lauren Laverne. There are hints in the closing moments that things might not be as you’d expect, but it doesn’t prepare you what happens across the rest of the album, as orchestral flourishes, percussive climaxes, semi-ambient vocal passages, and Tanya’s extraordinary throat singing explore a huge range of musical territory and texture. The strings, drums, and breathy yowls of “Fight” perhaps get closest to the Polaris performance, while “Uja” starts like a piece of minimal, reverberant electronica.
The album is dedicated to those missing and murdered Inuit women, and also contains a song called “Fracking”; despite having very few lyrics, it’s a pretty explicitly political work, about the literal rape of women and the figurative rape of nature. Combined with the varied and experimental sonic palette it makes for quite an experience. And that’s without really describing Tanya’s voice…
Tanya’s voice is an incredible thing. I’m not at all familiar with Inuit throat singing, but to Western pop-familiar ears what she does sits somewhere between Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist, the ‘Cookie Monster’ growl of some death/black/doom [delete as appropriate] metal, and the performative, ecstatic moans and cries of pornography. I’m pretty sure these three analogues aren’t in any way influences on what Tagaq is doing here, but when confronted with something so absolutely different to what you’ve heard before there’s little you can do but scrabble for comparisons.
The sleevenotes suggest that Animism‘s recording was at least partly paid for via crowdfunding, making it feel emblematic of 2014 even as it stands apart from almost every other piece of music I’ve heard this year. It’s not the record I’ve listened to or thought about most often this year, but there’s something about its strangeness (to me), about Tagaq’s deeply personal motivations, that I find really compelling.
Rob listened: I hadn’t heard of Tanya Tagaq until Nick, who heard of her a day before me, started talking in ecstatic terms about her Polaris performance. I smiled politely but never watched it (still haven’t, really should, but my tolerance for sitting and watching things is at an all-time low these days). So I came cold to this and found it impressive. I didn’t pick up on the political or philosophical overtones (neither did Nick – he was extrapolating from what he’d read into what he was hearing, which is perfectly fine) as the only words I could make out were written by Charles Thompson almost 30 years ago, but I did get some shape-shifting sounds some of which reminded be of other things (The Knife, Bjork) and some of which seemed to come from other worlds. In all, the record sounded as packed with genuinely interesting and intriguing stuff as any I’ve head this year.
Tom listened: Little did I realise that before tonight I had heard Tanya Tagaq’s dulcet holler on our copy (technically it’s Karen’s) copy of Bjork’s, rather too challenging for me, Medulla. So whether she is singing or throat singing on that LP…I don’t know, as I would estimate that I have listened to Medulla less than five times and can only recall the impression it gave rather than the sounds and songs. I have, however, heard the fine Inuit art form of throat singing on many occasions…every time I watch The Simpson’s movie and the Boob Lady section is on!
So, Animism turned out to be exactly, and nothing, like I expected…in that it was as challenging, difficult and abrasive as I thought it would be (once Nick had introduced it to us – like Rob I had no idea it existed until now), but it was also, at times, propulsive, catchy and beautiful. I preferred the latter sequences/songs but imagine that with repeated listens the parts of the album that were harder to take on first acquaintance would begin to make more sense and provide an intriguing, as opposed to discombobulating, contrast.