Musical genres don’t mean much in 2020. Artists nowadays are mixing cumbia with electronic music, rap with metal, industrial rock with pop and so on. But fusing that disregard for stylistic categorizations with improvisation is a whole new ballgame. Montreal’s Thanya Iyer fit that description perfectly—in that their music doesn’t fit neatly into anything. The band, led by the musician, composer, producer and bandleader of the same name, are hellbent on pushing the envelope and shifting the goalposts of what is possible. Their debut album, 2016’s Do You Dream? was an ambitious swirl of classical, jazz, soul and electro-pop. In their world, instruments like toy piano, saxophone, harp and even dried clementine peels could coexist on the same record.
Their 2020 follow-up KIND raises the stakes even higher—adding more mystifying subtleties and moods—and it’s a bit easier to digest than their 19-track debut. Much like its predecessor, it’s intrigued by scale. Opulent, often busy compositions and vulnerable lyricism work beautifully together. It has the grandeur and attention to detail of an orchestral record mixed with a singer/songwriter’s intimate, singular vision—not to mention the unpredictability of improvisational music. It’s also one of those albums that’s so elegantly devised and strangely composed that you wouldn’t want to know how the sausage was made, so to speak.
KIND’s opening track “I Woke Up (in the Water)” mirrors the natural, elemental wandering of the plucked harp on Do You Dream?’s first song. The instrumentals of “I Woke Up (in the Water)” sound like how a baby bird must feel when first poking its head out of its shell—wonky and confused, yet teeming with wonder and innocence, and on its way to becoming more self-assured. There are plenty of these multi-faceted emotions brought on by eccentric instrumentation and song structures. The time signature change in “Please Don’t Hold Me Hostage for Who I Am, Who I Was” results in something slightly chilling and kaleidoscopic, and the claustrophobic onslaught of “My Mind Keeps Running” is deeply unsettling, yet fascinating and graceful. The dense, on-edge instrumentals of “Look Up to the Light” even employ the kind of ominous and playful dichotomy that’s found in classic children’s stories.
With KIND, it’s hard to separate the psych, ambient, electro-pop, soul and jazz elements from one another, but that’s part of its appeal. Time signatures are fluid, and electronic and classical instruments exist in harmony. Much like the lyrics, the music deliberately defies categorization, and that defiance reflects a humanity that is deeply nuanced, collectivistic and forward-thinking. The band describes KIND as “a journey filled with questions that travel around grief, depression, anxiety, racism, disability, chronic pain, healing, self love, and giving that love outwards to the relationships around you.”
Iyer grapples with identity on several songs and emphasizes both its importance and lack of relevance. On “Bring Back That Which is Kind to You,” Iyer advocates for some level of cosmopolitanism and a deeper understanding of our soul, as opposed to facets of identity, many of which we can’t change (“No more will I hold on to you….What do we need?”). But on “Look Up to the Light,” Iyer also acknowledges that such differences should never impede our journey: “Look up to the light will find me lost in layers / Light will guide me.”
Thanya Iyer traverses heavy topics with imagery and vocabulary that are simple and familiar—a welcome contrast to their unconventional songwriting and instrumentation—but they’re still able to explore complex truths. On “Look Up to the Light,” Iyer sings, “There’s a land out there where what you do or say / Can count for you,” transmitting a deep belief in the reimagination of justice and a more egalitarian society. On the surface, “Alien” and “I Just Lay Down My Head” are some of KIND’s most straightforward songs, but they’re actually two of the most profound. With just four lines (“Bring me down to earth / Teach me how to learn / Teach me how to live / Teach me how to love”), “Alien” communicates a desire for curiosity, kindness and humility, and “I Just Lay Down My Head” is a meaningful examination of the battle between self-expectations and self-forgiveness.
Perhaps KIND’s greatest strength is crafting memorable moments from songs that skirt typical formulas to achieve that catchiness. That’s largely a credit to Iyer’s arresting vocal melodies and the band’s triumphant musical passages. By no means do musicians need to be as technically skilled as the members of Thanya Iyer and their featured guests, but it’s a delight when they are. Not only does KIND demand more from their music, it demands more from us as humans, and any album that can expand the plane of possibility on both fronts is worthy of high praise.
Lizzie Manno is an associate music editor, Coldplay apologist, bread obsessive and lover of all things indie, punk and shoegaze at Paste. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno.