Do not press shuffle. “Miss Universe” is an album meant to be listened to front-to-back, A-side to B-side, intro skit to final chord. It’s a record that evokes the futuristic nostalgia of Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind from the first moments Nilüfer’s voice welcomes you to WWAY Health — We Worry About Your Health — the 24/7 care center you’ve just entered.
The album opens with the sounds of elevator music, immediately jolting you into faded visions of waiting rooms bathed in artificial light and smelling of antiseptic. Nilüfer’s voice — slightly distant and automated — breaks in, assuring you have nothing to worry about because at WWAY Health:
We are here for you; we care for you; we worry about you so you don’t have to.
The honeyed voice is artificial, a salve instead of a cure. It’s a dystopian commentary of the extreme lengths we go for self-improvement and the perfect introduction to an album full of 2019-flavored cynicism.
From the cooing intro, you spiral into the anxious “In Your Head,” where Nilüfer goes in-between assertion of her self-agency to defense of her co-dependent feelings for someone — or something — that has left her wondering what is true.
“Miss Universe” is a breakup album — sort of. It’s a frustrated plea for connection and intimacy. But the thing at an end isn’t a relationship so much as a sense of reality. In the same way Clementine and Joel seek to erase their memories of one another in Eternal Sunshine, Nilüfer is attempting to cleanse herself of the things — paranoia, isolation, a longing for validation — that keep her from happiness.
It’s an album full of I-just-need-to-feel-something. The scratching guitars of “In Your Head” lead into the gentle indie-pop of “Paralysed,” and it’s a clever juxtaposition. In the former, Nilüfer’s frantic, staring down a cliff; in the next, she’s experiencing the physical symptoms of absence.
With each song there’s a lingering sense of nostalgia. Nilüfer is the nurse that guides you through WAAY Health — but she’s also the doctor and the morphine drip, meant to carry you through the very painful transition of moving on. In the second skit, “Experience?,” the listener is warned to “not look back” as they move onto “Paradise.”
Parsing through the phases of unidentified loss, the album moves between genres. Songs like “Angels” feel firmly alt-pop, while “Paradise” and “Baby Blue” feel brushed with elements of early R&B.
Halfway through the album, we’re issued a warning and the tempo picks up again with “Heat Rises,” danceable alt-rock-meets-synth-pop before dropping once more with “Melt,” a smooth-jazz-sax infused f*ck you:
I bet your brain cells won’t last
I bet they cling to the trash
I hope you melt on the way
Back to your place
Because the sunshine don’t last
I help them take out the trash
And you were always too slow
I’ll watch you melt
The songs that follow — “Safety Net” and “Tears” feel almost New Wave, and at times Nilüfer’s bittersweet lyricism makes one think of fellow Brit and Smiths frontman, Morrissey. And like Morrissey, Nilüfer occupies an indefinable middle space. Her music intentionally blurs the line between indie alt-rock and soul. Thematically, she’s caught in between love and loss, youth and adulthood. She’s leading you through the teeth-pulling agony of growing up.
By the end of the record, it feels as if the mourned thing isn’t so much a person, but a feeling. Loss, whether for love or the past or the hopefulness of youth or even for a sense of security, is most usually anti-climatic. And grief for that lost thing usually settles in slowly, sinking in the way summer skies melt from baby blue to indigo.
Before the final track, we’re treated to one final message from Nilüfer: we’ve completed the first phase of WWAY Health — congrats! — but we cannot go any further. We cannot “press 2 to feel better and probably live longer.” Technical malfunction, you see, so “please give up or try again…please give up…please give up.” It’s not so much a directive, as a suggestion: Please give up on this misguided path toward self-improvement. We are all following false gods of perfection.
The album closer is “Heavyweight Champion of the Year,” which brings us back to the guitar-heavy indie songs Nilüfer is best known for and over which she sings of once more trying to assert control — even if she knows control, in itself, is make-believe.
“‘Heavyweight Champion…’ for me is about reaching my own metaphorical bar, reaching my own limits within myself, and kind of forbidding myself to take it further. It feels like quite a physical song, quite physically tired — and mentally, but knowing the desire is still there to continue. I imagine it sometimes in my head as drawing a line around me and the outside world — a form of self protection and preservation.” — Nilüfer Yanya