by Charlie Leach (@YungBuchan)
Since 2014’s Nikki Nack, tUnE-yArDs have officially become a two-piece, with longtime collaborator Nate Brenner joining Merill Garbus as the two explore privilege through a dance and disco twang in their new album, i can feel you creep into my private life.
Though many have explored the lyrical content of this album and the motivation behind its creation (something that will be explored shortly), for long time listeners of tUnE-yArDs, the alt-pop sound of many of their projects has been combined with more electronic texture and style. In the lead up to the release of their latest effort, Garbus told of her recent experiences with dance music, in which she has started to DJ in Oakland at local clubs. This is most definitely felt on this album.
Opener Heart Attack is tinged with a 90’s dance influence; from the chopped up vocal sampling and Rhodes-lite synth piano to the four to the floor kick drum and rolling hi-hats, this song would not be out of place on any of the many Saturday morning music shows that populated many a channel just a few decades prior. The sharp violins that arrive later in the track add even more to this 90’s house atmosphere. In spite of all this, there are still some of the classic tUnE-yArDs elements that have purveyed throughout their music career: entertaining, complicated percussive rhythms; Garbus’ bellowing, vibrant vocals (which here are tinged with reverb that permeates the song and adds to the electronic aesthetic); and the funky, stabbing bass-line provided by Brenner.
Another stand out track is Honesty. Again, taking some of the tried and tested calling cards for their sound, the band forays into this new, more synth-based electronic sound on this track. Their plethora of synth sounds might possibly extend here to a saxophone solo that mixes the earthy textures of real saxophone with what could quite be some more electronic production techniques, compounding on the song’s dance roots. The chorus-like vocals of Garbus appear here again; like most tUnE-yArDs songs, they fill the mix, begging for attention, but do so in a more glitched, sampled fashion.
This formula is repeated in many different ways throughout the album: track Home is a mid-album breather that consists of choral-like vocals that again dominate the track, over a slow bass and drum rhythm with sweeping pads; Look At Your Hands is an energetic house inspired synth-pop track, with a quite contagious vocal melody and hook over a moving bass line and fast, simple yet effective drum beat. Most of the tracks on this album can be described as they have been previously; energetic house or disco tracks with the odd slower electronic track thrown in to provide breathing room.
However, this genre shift for the band does not necessarily lead to great success. For the majority of this album, it could be argued that the band have not especially inhabited the sound of electronic music, rather adopted it and used some of its most basic qualities to write an electronic album. Forgoing a lot of their more organic sound that they had previously has not particularly worked on this album; this album could, in essence, be described as “tUnE-yArDs playing house music”, rather than the band using this different way of producing and writing songs to further their music evolution. This sound feels more like a fleeting experiment, rather than a dramatic sea-change.
What has been an ever-present in tUnE-yArDs‘ music is Garbus’ social commentary explored through her lyrical content, and this is no different on this latest release. In the lead up to the release of this album, Garbus talked about her experiences with a spirituality course on white privilege, and her own misgivings about how many people of privilege unwittingly exploit that privilege. In the current political landscape, this is not new territory but is definitely something that needs to be explored more in new music. Unfortunately, on this album, it could be argued that the manner in which it is explored is fairly heavy-handed.
The much talked about track Colonizer is one such example of a track that edges the line between a well-used analogy and over into something that could be considered slightly hypocritical. In this writer’s personal opinion, this song is in a stark juxtaposition between a lot of the traditional tUnE-yArDs sound. The lyrical refrain Garbus’ uses (“I use my white woman voice”) highlights the problem of the colonial nature of art, where many white musicians have taken different cultures’ musical styles without real acknowledgment of where it comes from and whether they should be able to use it. This is a standpoint that is very agreeable, yet a lot of the African influence that has been a major part of tUnE-yArDs‘ back-catalogue is still definitely present in this latest effort (though less than previous releases).
A lot of the lyrics Garbus uses on the album do admit guilt for use of her privilege. Logically, use of these African styles might suggest that she is still battling with these demons, and needs to tackle the issue head-on. The lead single for the album, ABC 123, looks at trying to guide the listeners to face these prevalent issues, instead of running from them. In a NPR interview speaking about the new album, Garbus stated that she felt when writing this track that the lyrics may come off as annoying, as they seem quite didactic, yet wanted to use this track as a guiding point for people to fight back against these injustices. This could be seen as something that is quite confusing and problematic.
This album, on one hand, wants to be a call to arms whilst also exploring the flaws of the lead singer. Unfortunately, in many instances, this politicized album just falls flat from really vying for attention and rousing action. The synthetic direction of the instrumentation leads to a mechanical, and less fruitful listen than previous tUnE-yArDs albums and does not combine well with the awkwardly executed message.