opinion byPETER TABAKIS < @ptabakis >
A strange debate erupted shortly after tUnE-yArDs’ whokilltopped the Village Voice’s 2011 Pazz and Jop poll, ahead of Watch the Throne and a little-known release from Adele. It started when Chuck Klosterman penned an off-the-cuff take of the album for Grantland. Though whokill’s merits (or lack thereof) were ostensibly the purpose of the piece, his true subject was consensus and when it goes wrong. Klosterman argued that music critics sometimes champion the fashionably average. Momentum builds until hasty opinions steamroll across year-end lists. In a footnote, he cited Arrested Development (who won the Pazz and Jop in ‘92), Cornershop, and Fischerspooner as examples of bands whose prior acclaim seems inflated, if not ridiculous, in retrospect. Alas, this truth was overshadowed by the glib tone of his article and, worse yet, his poorly researched and ungenerous evaluation of Merrill Garbus and her output. The blowback was swift and brutal. Klosterman’s critics deemed him oblivious and out-of-step with the culture. Some even branded him an illiberal troglodyte.
To be sure, Garbus’ artistry comes across as faddish on first impression. (dOeS CApiTaliZatIOn mEaN NotHIng?) Tangled in the novelty of her execution are substantial musical and emotional riches. But they must be teased out over time, with the listener’s active participation. This is exactly what Klosterman failed to do in preparation for his piece. It lacked a basic attempt to thoughtfully engage with whokill. Here was America’s most famous culture writer, in effect dismissing a notable album uncritically.
Still, we ought to reckon with Klosterman’s suspicions. Is Merrill Garbus the real deal? Does she have more great songs in her? Can her brand of profound weirdness appeal to a larger audience? tUnE-yArDs’ third album holds all the answers. They are: yes, yes, and no fucking way.
Nikki Nack, the phenomenal follow-up to whokill, will only solidify the prior convictions of admirers and cynics alike. Garbus has broadened and sharpened her sonic vocabulary. Her melodies are catchier, her zany song structures more welcoming. Album producers John Hill and Malay (who have worked with M.I.A and Frank Ocean, respectively) add studio refinement and a sense that this anarchy is under the loosest control. And yet, Nikki Nack’s percussive attack and whirling density make it even more impenetrable than whokill. It pushes pop to the outermost limits.
tUnE-yArDs may resist tidy labels, but Merrill Garbus’ influences are firmly rooted in two disparate trends that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s. Thematically, her lyrics are informed by the movement towards social consciousness (now endlessly lampooned as “political correctness”), ushered in by such artists as Tracy Chapman, the Indigo Girls, and Natalie Merchant. Her patchwork sonic approach, however, comes straight from the studio trickery of the Dust Brothers (who produced the twin masterpieces of Paul’s Boutique and Odelay). tUnE-yArDs’ songs swing between the opposing valences of earnest commentary and exuberant postmodernism. A polka-dotted ribbon of playground chants and childhood gibberish wraps everything up in a tenuous bow.
Garbus worked on honing her craft after coming back drained from the whokill tour. She took formal vocal lessons and journeyed to Haiti to study drumming. When tUne-yArDs returned to the studio, there was a focus on individual sounds. Machine-made and acoustic beats were recorded separately. Melodies were fashioned without either. This painstaking process of creative rediscovery is the topic of Nikki Nack’s opener “Find a New Way,” but it’s also strikingly evident throughout its following twelve tracks. The album thrums with vitality and elation. Garbus appears to share our surprise and excitement, as if with each play we’re experiencing the work alongside its author for the first time.
Nikki Nack often feels like a fantastic party with a horrible guest list. Its themes range from racism (“Sink-O” and “Real Thing”) to environmental decay (“Water Fountain”), drug addiction (“Wait for a Minute”) to mortality (“Hey Life”), date rape (“Manchild”) to wealth inequality (“Left Behind”), abject poverty (“Why Do We Dine on the Tots?”) to negative body image (“Real Thing”). Similar to its predecessor, Nikki Nack isn’t uniformly celebratory. It makes room for a silky R&B tune (“Wait for a Minute”), an ethereal hymn (“Time of Dark”), a mock spiritual (“Rocking Chair”), and a spoken-word interlude in the style of Jonathan Swift (“Why Do We Dine on the Tots?”).
All of these parts don’t always fit into a flawless whole. Nikki Nack peaks early and sags a bit in the middle. But it seems churlish to quibble about an album so thrilling. Few artists today could match the sheer joy of “Water Fountain” or the misty beauty of “Time of Dark.” tUnE-yArDs will probably remain a niche act, ignored by most of humanity. The world will still turn and a lucky few will continue to hold a really great secret. Is that so bad, Chuck? A-