Published in The Quietus on January 8, 2015
Tanya Tagaq hails from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, and has developed a modified form of Inuit throat singing. The rapid-fire exchange of gasping and growling breaths between two singers becomes, in her work, an intensive solo exercise. She miraculously manages to carry over this double-ness, refracting herself into audibly distinct beings on either side of her breath.
This feat of vocal production made its recorded debut on Bjork’s Medulla, where Tagaq provided a sighing, panting accompaniment, and came to the fore on her first solo album Sinaa in spare and unflinching all-vocal tracks. Her subsequent records,Auk/Blood and Anuraaqtuq, in addition to their audible ties to native traditions, are virtuosic explorations of the human voice in the same vein as avant-garde performers such as Joan LaBarbara or Meredith Monk.
With Animism, released in May of this year, Tagaq grazes the mainstream more so than ever before. And as the winner of the 2014 Polaris Music Prize (for which she beat Arcade Fire, Mac DeMarco and Drake), the album has ushered her to the forefront of the Canadian indie scene.Animism features more prominent orchestration than her previous albums, which perhaps minimises the impact of the solo polyphony achieved in her live performances. The album is, however, more conceptually well developed, as well as more conventionally listenable.
By contrast to the purism of her earlier work, Animism comes together as a host of pop, classical and traditional referents all affectionately devoured and regurgitated. The first track, a cover of the Pixie’s ‘Caribou’, trades in guitars for a swelling string ensemble. Tagaq delivers a lucid and measured melodic line that lacks Black Francis’ off kilter snarl, but a new vehemence can be heard in the growls and pants that surge to overtake the refrain. Given the rarity of audible lyrics in her work, the words become a very deliberate proclamation: “This human form where I was born I now repent.”
Her final calls to repent arrive as petrifying howls ripped from death metal, which carry over into the following tracks, ‘Uja’ and ‘Umingmak’. Supported by Jean Martin’s tremendously tense percussion arrangements, Tagaq’s relentless grunts evoke the spasmodic, horror film moment of transformation from human to animal. She employs every millimetre of breath, producing resonances in forgotten cranial cavities that create sounds so physical they are barely to traceable back to a human point of utterance.
Indeed animality is quite evidently a central theme of the album, since animism refers to the belief that animals, plants and even inanimate objects have souls. This is audible not only in the more bestial vocal elements, but in some of the softer, more atmospheric tracks such as the lulling murmurs in ‘Rabbit’ and the soaring bird call melodies in ‘Tulugak’. This interspecies and even inter-object sensitivity manifests most harrowingly, perhaps, in ‘Fracking’, where Tagaq’s choked and wavering moan seems to animate the tortured earth itself.
But here is where I struggle: firstly, not to collapse into vague and essentialist claims about the closeness between indigenous people and the natural world, and secondly, to repress my own inclination to tritely label Tagaq’s practice as one which ‘breaks down binaries’. As Tagaq frustratedly declared in a recent interview, “We’re animals! We’re meat! We’re so stupid to think that we’re not!” There is inherent in Animism a presumed kinship with the non-human that insists upon a renegotiation of dynamics of predator and prey, fear and reverence.
It’s perhaps the most striking thing about Animism: at times the perplexing nature of Tagaq’s musical lexion is due to its alignment with a different spiritual accounting. There is, even in moments that might sound aggressive or ominous, so much joy and affection. The album is distinguished, therefore, not only by impressive vocal athleticism but also by an astonishing extra-human tenderness.