Nietzsche once waxed that we live in an age of comparison, if that is true then that age has not yet…
Nietzsche once waxed that we live in an age of comparison, and if that was true then that age has not yet passed. But to have heard tUnE-yArDs for the first time, and on Nikki Nack, there could be neither comparison nor peer. The manic staccato beats and neo-tribalist yelps of Merrill Garbus are as distinctive as they are addictive. Her sounds jar against the senses and her musical and personal identity seem fleeting things from track to track. It would have been too easy for Garbus to rest on her laurels off the near fanaticism over 2011’s w h o k i l l. Yet, quite impossibly, she has managed to broaden her sounds once again. Bassist and collaborator/lover, Nate Brenner has fashioned a permanent place in the space that’s been created. Garbus has also left a large part of her brass section behind, and her rhythms have soaked up more non-Western influences that pack an unexpected punch. It’s resulted in a newly expansive album that has not baulked in the face of the challenges she – and others – had set for herself.
Despite her apparent fearlessness, the challenge to go essentially further was always going be daunting. Her previous work had left some adoring and others ever-skeptical of her musical persona; one that is derived mostly from the somewhat androgynous figure tUnE-yArDs cuts sonically. While some looked at this as a confusion easily settled with an internet search, it is the gravest of mistakes to mansplain her away as asexual. In an age of hyper-sexualised female pop, she challenges these notions of gender and identity with messily applied facepaint and lyrics charged with an undeniable and gyrating sexuality. She boldly asks, “Girls, why are you afraid about pants size 10, about chest size 6?” on ‘Real Thing’. It’s her ability to flit between these many perspectives while giving each their due agency that made her path on Nikki Nack an easy one to see, but no less easy to tread. Nikki Nack’s mission is to leave us in no doubt that tUnE-yArDs has a place in pop that is equal and wonderful parts poetic, chaotic and carnal.
Yet with all these ostensible doubts, Merrill Garbus still comes out of the blocks on ‘Find A New Way’ positively and staggeringly self-assured, almost swaggering her way through a dense thirteen tracks on the album. “I only speak when I’m feeling sad and lonely. But what I speak doesn’t have to do with being sad and lonely,” is her blunt honesty bubbling up from the dense loops and clattering rhythms within which she tangles us. Her confidence is gained from having embraced life-and-love’s unknowable unknowns. For this reason the moments experienced on ‘Real Thing’ coincide as her boldest and the album’s brightest. A marching drum rhythm and organ echo her skepticism of “the emptiness of your fame” in one second, and in the next moment reveal her wide-eyed wonder that, ‘”Oh my God, I use my lungs,” and does so to great success. These are two warring mindsets she tucks under each arm for the duration of Nikki Nack and it’s a pairing in which she sees no contradiction.
Unsurprisingly, Garbus’ frenetic approach to music is echoed in her distaste for inaction; both a stalwart activist and supporter she’s hardly ever still. However, the fact that she was born into an unremarkable Connecticut life is the go-to counterpoint of those who scream ‘cultural appropriation’ when others yell ‘innovation’. “We said we wouldn’t let ’em take our soil” is her full-bellied revolutionary’s cry on ‘Left Behind’ – the ‘them’ being the boats full of ‘rich folk’ taking over her neighbourhood. This could be seen as hypocritical, but, on closer examination there’s no sign of a disconnect. She’s drawn from an endless source of influences from Taarab and Swahili (in which she sings on early recordings), the Appalachia, and most recently Haïtian melodies; shaping and molding her syncretic sound into what it is today. She was at the forefront of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and a spokesperson for equality in all realms. And Garbus has been generous in doling out the wisdom these experiences have granted her; whether it’s the lead-single ‘Water Fountain’ that’s sugary on the surface, but a fevered portrait of the effects of globalisation. In the multi-layered tribalism of ‘Rocking Chair’ – she strips back the sound like skin and flesh on a face to prove that bone lies beneath, left with only her compelling voice and trance-inducing handclaps to carve out an aural tale.
What’s more is that the atmosphere of Nikki Nack has benefitted greatly from the production work of Malay (Frank Ocean, John Legend) who’s breathed a calming melody into her style, tying it inextricably to R&B influences. Every song starts as a conversation, slow and dazzling, almost leaving spaces in between for one to pause and breathe-in her subject matter. This, all before the tempo tumbles into a frantic fever pitch that’s punctuated by rapidly-rapped razor-sharp couplets that carry the weighty issues she tears down in each track. The funk-infused bass of ‘Manchild’ is a worthy companion of her hard-hitting lambast against the patriarchy. “I mean it, don’t beat up on my body,” she stamps out, and for that moment she’s unflinching before the world’s eyes.
Though the second half of the album is mostly the quiet companion of the rambunctious first, there’s nothing more schismatic than the album’s interlude, ‘Why Do We Dine On The Tots?’ Purported as a bedtime story of sorts with her comically put-on voices, it spirals quickly into horror. Like it’s been sifted from the mind of E.F. Benson or lifted from a Buñuel film, it prosaically explores the many merits of eating children. For some it’s merely a talking point and these more favourable views may only come to reveal themselves after several listens. But it could easily be seen as an overstep into the boundaries of eccentricity she tries her utmost to flout. Nevertheless, the choice not to relegate it to that alone is as conscious as it is rewarding.
tUnE-yArDs spends a great deal of Nikki Nack wrestling with so many large chunks of perspective and breaking them down at breakneck pace that it’s a wonder she doesn’t choke. Along with her ubiquitous ukulele, she’s shaken off her assumed ‘quirks’ for the trivial term that it is. She’s both boisterous and austere as she pounds out a message in her own conscious; hoping against that hope that it manages to radiate outwards. On the final word of Nikki Nack, ‘Manchild’, she’s tells a mysterious, discourteous brute that, “I’ve got something to say!” It’s her statement of intent and she’s almost tripping over her words in her rush to tell us. She’d do well to know that we hardly needed reminding.