How does an artist find inspiration when the well looks to have dried up? That’s the question Merrill Garbus asked at the end of a decade of making music under the tUnE-yArDs moniker with co-producer and bassist Nate Brenner. For the Oakland-based duo’s previous two albums, ‘Nikki Nack’ (2014) and ‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’ (2018), it was a broadening of their lo-fi art punk songs into more rounded creations that took on dub and electronic music to detail anxieties on climate change, race and gender identity.
‘Bird-Brains’ (2009) and ‘Whokill’ (2009) introduced the world to tUnE-yArDs’ earthy polyrhythmic music. Beats indebted to African music, and Garbus’ fierce vocals sought to externalise a growing unease with the world. “There is a natural sound that wild things make when they’re bound”, she wailed on 2009’s ‘Hatari’, prefacing years of unfettered beat-driven protest music.
“That might be useful energy – that anger,” Garbus has said of the band’s new album ‘sketchy’, realising that her early work could inform her fifth record. And informed it it has. Opener ‘nowhere, man’ is a clattering clarion call of mutant riffs and samples tumbling beneath Garbus’ soapbox vocals. Instruments fall silent to spotlight the lyric: “If you cannot hear a woman then how can you write her song?” Garbus’ rage at abortion laws made exclusively by men is palpable.
That rawness follows on ‘make it right’ with blast beats, robotic synths and rehearsal room outtakes seeping into the cut. Garbus previously explored her complicity in white supremacy across ‘I Can Feel You…’ but here she underscores both white fragility and the lazy, performative activism that can accompany it. She adopts the collective white voice, those who owe “a debt from a long time ago”, but who’d rather someone else do the hard educating: “So go ahead – make me human.”
If Garbus positioning herself as the problem seems like unnecessary self-flagellation, it isn’t. She’s addressed her own shortcomings in interviews and strives to do better. The music tells that story too. On ‘sometime’ she flits between succumbing to cynicism (“our world is destroyed”) before determining “no” and facing up to the climate crisis. The song weaves in and out of syncopation with cyclical nursery rhymes, scattered field recordings, grating bass and buoyant beats: a musical manifestation of the contradictions Garbus extols.
There are smoother moments on ‘sketchy’. ‘My Neighbor’, for instance, sounds like a loungey version of British trip-hop duo Zero 7. ‘Hold yourself’ employs atmospheric piano, slinky bass and brass to create a warm fug that’s later disarmed by discordant melodies. But there’s a switch in tone, exposing an uncomfortable question: why produce children when the planet is doomed?
‘Sketchy’ takes the best, feral pulses from tUnE-yArDs’ DIY material and the richest sounds of later records in its doubling down on societal crises. If Garbus was worried about finding inspiration, she needn’t have been.
Release date: March 26
Record label: 4AD