“I am exceptional, I am an exception, I am the exception”. A look inside the mind of Merrill Garbus, frontwoman of New England art pop project Tune-Yards, would always have been a fascinating experience. From the quaint but dangerous ‘WhoKill’, to 2014’s exercise in freakiness ‘Nikki Nack’, Garbus, alongside songwriting partner and bassist Nate Brenner, has shown off heaps of imagination, songwriting prowess and a personality like no other. She’s a writer who prides herself on being different, but oddly, ‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’ sees her stray away from what we’ve come to expect.
If there’s one aspect of ‘Private Life’ that can be lauded over previous Tune-Yards albums, it’s the terseness of its lyrical content. It’s the work of a woman who is refusing to smile, who has recovered from her constantly-turning blind eye, and has unzipped her mouth, particularly regarding a certain political surprise that occurred in November 2016. ‘Coast to Coast’ sees Garbus battle with the concept of side-taking, generating an almost army-esque march on the chorus as she sings “right, left, right left, fantasy, fantasy / don’t let them pave my feet down or I’ll drown”. In ‘ABC 123’, she tries her hardest to take control of her political identity, knowing that standing her ground and protesting will alienate others, singing “I want so badly to be liked / I ask myself, ‘why was I nice?’”. There’s an undeniable potency to the subjects Garbus tackles, and a good deal of clarity, putting to shame the incoherent tales of previous work, no longer playing the ‘abstract / weird / subtle’ card that may have been fun on ‘Nikki Nack’, but a lot less human than her work on ‘Private Life.
After noisy finale ‘Free’ comes to an end, we hear Garbus go over the drumbeat to opener ‘Heart Attack’ in the studio, creating a loop, perhaps representing her worries, and that their resurfacings are constant, even when making peace, they’re ready to come back to bite her.
Musically, Nate Brenner’s bass dominates, producing a constantly-buzzing, menacing style of alternative dance music. ‘Hammer’ still incorporates an Afrobeat influence, like a number of songs from ‘Nikki Nack’, as does the experimental beat of ‘Heart Attack’, but for the most part, the duo is exploring new territory. There was a certain ‘colourful’ appeal to previous albums, that may have seen the duo messily sling paint around a room to see what comes of it, but at least those albums had some sense of colour, rather than ‘Private Life’ which is squeezing the same tube of grey over and over, sometimes robotically. Granted, this works for some of the song topics, and hearing Garbus hurl her “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men” narrative on ‘Colonizer’, above a crunching, pulsating electronic beat, like a machine with a mouthful of speed pills, is quite thrilling, and a little scary.
If a deep conversation about identity politics with Merrill Garbus is what people want, ‘Private Life’ might be Tune-Yards’ smartest album yet. Unfortunately, musically, outside the snappy percussion lines and the occasional fuzzy synth riff (see the title track), Tune-Yards are leaving a lot to be desired, especially considering their usual ambitiousness.
‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’ is out now via 4AD. The albums full track listing is as follows…
01. Heart Attack
02. Coast to Coast
03. ABC 123
04. Now As Then
07. Look At Your Hands
10. Who Are You
11. Private Life