It’s been nearly four years since we last heard from Merrill Garbus, and it’s quite a shock to suddenly be immersed in her world again. For nobody quite sounds like Tune-Yards (pleasingly, it appears she’s dropped the random capitalized letters in her band name for this album) and I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is as compelling, complex and creative as her debut Bird Brains was back in 2009.
The big difference though is in how Garbus’ sound has evolved since that debut. Whereas Bird Brains was lo-fi personified, recorded on a digital tape recorder and edited through Audacity, her new album embraces disco and house rhythms, and at times (as on the lead single Look At Your Hands) it sounds like her most accessible work yet. As ever with Garbus though, there are also times where she crosses the experimental line to a point where the album can become quite jarring.
When she’s on form, Garbus can still sound insanely exciting. Opening track Heart Attack loops piano chords, clattering percussion and that extraordinary voice – switching effortlessly between a half-whispered murmur to an excitable holler in one line – to create a euphoria that you almost wish you could bottle. ABC 123, despite its nursery rhyme title, is similarly unstoppable in its devotion to making you dance, while the aforementioned Look At Your Hands shows off Garbus’ voice to its very best advantage, as it negotiates around a seemingly endless succession of wonky time signature changes which somehow never disrupt the song’s exhilarating flow.
Garbus has always been a stridently political artist though, and underneath all the beats and hypnotic rhythms, there lurks a serious message. Coast To Coast addresses environmental turmoil, imagining a world where “the walls come tumbling down to the sea” before asking “is it time to say goodbye to New York?”, and Look At Your Hands addresses personal responsibility and agency in an increasingly selfish world.
Then there’s Colonizer, which will probably be the album’s most divisive song. In the last few years, there’s been much talk of cultural appropriation, and how white artists no longer seem to have a free pass in getting rich from other cultures. It’s undeniable that Garbus has been heavily influenced by African-Caribbean music (indeed, it’s as highly prevalent on this album as on her others). To her credit, she doesn’t shy away from these charges, using Colonizer as her way to explore her white guilt.
It’s a song that doesn’t quite work, though, with clumsy lyrics like “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of troubles with African men” and a song that never really seems to get moving among Nate Brenner’s elastic bass, some pulsing drums, a chorus of Tarzan chants and a whole load of discordant noises. The song literally finishes mid-sentence, as if someone’s pulled the plug, and that may well be for the best, despite all the good intentions.
It wouldn’t be a Tune-Yards album though without some heavy degree of experimentation – Who Are You starts off as spooky as a Portishead ballad, but the scream of the saxophone solo has one’s finger hovering over the ‘skip’ button. The cut-up vocals and percussive beats of Honesty fares far better though, and there’s still the sense that these songs will definitely benefit when played live. There is, after all, nothing much more utterly joyful than a Tune-Yards live show.
Because despite some occasional heavy handiness, Garbus and Brenner (who has his most active role on a Tune-Yards album to date) never lose sight of the fact that their music is, first and foremost, fun. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life doesn’t quite hit the immense heights of her first two albums, but this is still Merrill Garbus doing her own thing – which is something that’s always worth paying attention to.