In the wake of the Time’s Up rallies – where women came together across the world standing in solidarity in the face of oppression in all its forms – the new Tune-Yards record feels especially poignant and especially challenging. “I must be witness to everything”; frontwoman Merrill Garbus’ message in ‘ABC123’ is clear: Rally, but better still, take steps to listen, examine and probe; recognise the intersectionality of feminism, identify that the uterus does not define womanhood, rally for the rights of every female, female identifying and non-binary person, fight against underrepresentation of marginalised groups.
The fourth Tune-Yards album, I can feel you creep into my private life, is an abrasive examination of modern society, of flailing identities, and a starkly introspective look at her own position in America as a white woman.
Here in the follow up to 2014’s Nikki Nack, Tune-Yards has officially become a duo. Long-time collaborator Nate Brenner steps up as named producer for the first time on an album that has been mixed by Mikaelin ‘Blue’ Bluespruce – whose previous work includes Solange and Kendrick Lemar – and mastered by Dave Kutch of Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper credits. Throughout, the intensity of the politically charged lyrical content contrasts with the fact that musically, this is the most buoyant and danceable Tune-Yards record to date.
Since the last album, Garbus has spent time DJing, as well as hosting her own monthly show on Red Bull Radio. C.L.A.W, which stands for Collaborative Legions of Artful Womxn, highlights the work of female identifying producers and in doing so, has led Garbus down a track to make music built from dancefloor rhythms. House and disco inflections punctuate the album in the form of thumping basslines, hi-hats, bright synths and 4×4 drum patterns.
As Tune-Yards embraces the sounds of house and disco – genres that exist as a direct result of oppression and the need for safe and inclusive spaces, particularly for people of colour and the queer community – there are moments of discomfort as the freeing sensibilities of the music clash with uncomfortable self-analysis. But, it’s an important discomfort; an acknowledgement of the fact that sometimes difficult questions mean difficult answers. Confronting her own cultural appropriation and privilege head on in ‘Colonizer’ – the most chilling track on the record – Garbus sings, “I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant”. It’s a pointed remark about the white woman’s guilt, the tendency to revert to defensiveness in situations where quiet admission and stopping to listen would suffice.
Tune-Yards knack for infectious percussive rhythms and penchant for the chaotic layering of vocal harmonies is resolute, shining particularly in flamboyant ode to disco ‘Look at Your Hands’. Uplifting claps and multi-tracked vocals ask the listener to look inward, inferring that forward movement will stem from communication and a united voice; “Harmony!” Garbus’ voice sings fervently, “vibration when the voices are free”.
Somehow, the duo retain cohesion amidst the clutter. In the opening bars of ‘Coast to Coast’ – in which New York has drowned under water; a reference to our failure to look after the environment – there’s a series of repetitive and jarring thuds, much like that sound your speaker makes as you plug it into the source. Coupled with shuddering electric guitar and a flickering chorus of harmonies that float in the background, it’s a mishmash of ideas. Then enters Garbus’ epic, soaring top line and somehow the result is an immense and harmonious energy. Chopped up and manipulated vocal samples accompany a driving house beat on ‘Honesty’, where the catchy simplicity of the rhythm is counteracted by the lyrics: “This river runs so deep”, Garbus sings in reference to the institutional and systemic racism that is so deeply ingrained into the world. “Honesty, honesty gone”, she sings, disheartened about truth and faith, or the lack thereof.
There’s something to be said for moments of hedonism on a dancefloor before you take that moment of clarity to consider the content, and indeed the context, of what you’re dancing to. I can feel you creep into my private life is made up of many of those moments. You can lose yourself in the instrumentation, but only for a minute. Tune-Yards want to bring you right back to thinking and listening. In the final track this delicate balance of liberation versus contemplation hits home again as a dissonant chorus of “free!” sounds both desperate and defiant.
Live: Roundhouse – 20th March