Bones Banging Out Beats

Tune-Yards’ Nikki Nack and the dangers of appropriation.

Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards.
Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards.

Holly Andres/4AD

Merrill Garbus—the singer, instrumentalist, songwriter, producer, and all-round auteur of the experimental pop (and typography) project tUnE-yArDs—has said that she’s inspired by books and music for kids, which have the latitude to combine dark perspectives with a goofy, celebratory atmosphere. Her songs skedaddle up and down sonic hills and valleys like an avant-junkman’s jalopy, sounding the polyphonic steam-whistle of her remarkable voice in beckoning and in warning, while the injustices and sicknesses of society drag behind like a tangle of barbed fences that the cart has barreled through.

For both good and ill, though, the line from children’s literature called to mind by her new album Nikki Nack is the Dormouse’s in Alice in Wonderland: “Did you ever see such a thing as a drawing of a muchness?” It is not only that the record floods the ears with a million ideas a minute—that’s often precisely its pleasure—but that in places it feels as if content and form mismatch. Or perhaps it’s that the pressure she tends to put on her music to represent her every feeling and belief with equal force opens up sinkholes (or “Sink-O,” as one song is titled), so that the flooding becomes an emptying out, a hollowing.

But before getting to my misgivings, I should bracket the album’s many achievements. In 2011, Tune-Yards’ (please pardon the orthographic regularization) first wide-release album Whokill was received like divine scripture by indie audiences and music critics, who voted it the album of the year in the Village Voice’s annual poll. They also acclaimed her befeathered and face-painted, ukulele-looping and drum-beating performances—alongside her bassist, collaborator, and romantic partner Nate Brenner—as some of the most breathtaking live spectacles in current music.

After the year of touring that followed, Garbus has said, she felt exhausted and unsure whether she even wanted to continue her career as a musician, which had begun only a few years before with a handheld recorder in a Montreal basement apartment, after spending her 20s working as a puppeteer, a nanny, and other pursuits. Now based in Oakland, she set about trying to “Find a New Way,” as the opening track of Nikki Nack conspicuously announces.

That involved taking lessons in Broadway-style singing as well as Haitian drumming and dance, a trip to Haiti last year to “situate [herself] in a non-western musical tradition,” and for the first time inviting outside producers’ input into her DIY studio approach—in this case, Malay (Frank Ocean, Alicia Keys, Big Boi) and John Hill (Rihanna, Shakira, M.I.A.). She was exposing a sound that was already enormously eclectic and syncretic to mutating agents from both farther out and further in—from the rhythmically challenging, time-stretching power of island ritual and carnival traditions as well as the moment-crystallizing craft and welcoming flexibility of mainstream radio pop.

For about half of the new album, mostly the first half, this has the multidimensionally expansive effect on her music that she must have hoped for. As on Whokill, the ecstatic energy makes me feel I can hear her being seized by each idea in its turn, as if for the first time. But here, the counter-rhythms she’s borrowed from Caribbean and African sources also work as counter-proposals. And the layers of taped vocals that allow her to interrupt, second-guess and Greek-chorus herself make Garbus her own church congregation, her own Ikettes or Pips, and her own Oompa Loompas, not to mention her own Destiny’s Child.

She’s mostly laid aside the ukulele as if it had become a crutch. Instead the programmed beats, live drums, stuttering splice-edits, and other ghosts of noise in the mix combine to plot out 360-degree environments that become the songs’ climates, the containers for her multitudes. Rather than acting out a commanding individual eccentricity, as her mannerisms often seemed to do on Whokill, these pieces come across as feats of world-building, but ones permeable enough to let the real planet’s air, however toxic.

Compared to the other prominent Haitian-influenced indie-rock record of the past year, by her Montreal friends and sometime tourmates Arcade Fire, Nikki Nack much more convincingly folds together influence and originality while still conveying the goosebump-thrill of learning and change to a listener—a politically progressive feeling, because, as she sings on “Find a New Way,” “When I see you changing, I believe that I can change too.”

To be fair to Arcade Fire, this is partly because Garbus’ roots are in folk music and playground chants and songs, whose whole point is to be adaptably sociable, unlike rock music, which has a built-in Nietzschean imperative to impose its will. That girl-culture, clap-along spirit serves well on first single “Water Fountain,” which slips in critiques of the privatization of community goods (“no water in the water fountain/ no phone in the phone booth”), the devil’s bargain of international development (“greasy man come and dig my well”), U.S. capitalism (“he gave me a dollar, a blood-soaked dollar”) and more—all while tumbling forward on a mudslide of quotes from Appalachian string bands, nursery rhymes, Laurie Andersonesque monologues, Creole aphorisms, and Busta Rhymes-style WOO-HAs.

Likewise, “Real Thing” rotates between light-touch R&B homilies on ambition and materialism and bluesy kvetching about fame and reputation, before building to a stratospheric ode to singing itself. The whole approaches a manifesto about the way female artists are assessed or “real” or “fake,” and trusting only the authenticity of the life of the body, the lungs pushing out air, the bones banging out beats, regardless of who considers them ugly or pretty.

And then, by contrast, there’s the painful sweetness of “Look Around” and “Wait for a Minute” (one of the highlights of the album’s second half)—slow jams, with Brenner’s discerning bass in the lead, about struggling to love a lover or oneself despite the fallenness of the world and the temptations of slacking and vice. These soulful songs, like the intense “Powa” on Whokill, are enough to make me wish for a whole album of ballads from this usually raucous band.

In all these songs, I hear Garbus open-endedly exploring associative chains of subjects, emotions, and states of being, incorporating her own apprehensions and second thoughts. But on some others, she begins to sound more college-activist didactic, less provocative than condescendingly point-scoring. “Manchild,” with its overtones about sexual violence, has enough sting to sustain it. But “Stop That Man,” based on the slaying of Trayvon Martin, is a piece of cardboard editorializing. “Sink-O” and “Left Behind” likewise both tip over into clichés and affectations that verge on weak spoken-word poetry—telegraphing significance with emphatic enunciation and aggrieved tone instead of honed word and sound.

More troublingly, “Rocking Chair” is the first track ever to make me sympathize with the charges of cultural appropriation that have been lobbed at Tune-Yards. The African and Haitian borrowings and “tribal”-looking stage styles have all read to me as sincerely felt and conscientiously measured. But this track comes off as a faux archival field recording, including an off-putting hint of a put-on Southern black accent.

With that exception, the weaker songs on the album seem to me simply the casualties of high aspiration—with a style that aims at transcendence, some flights are bound to fall flat. You or I can edit the track list and wind up with a tighter collection that never slumps (even if our choices might vary). Following up a breakthrough record is a crusher in itself, and Garbus has trebled the stakes on Nikki Nack by pushing herself to use pop and polyrhythms to disrupt insular tendencies—her own or her audience’s—and to suggest how many more personal and musical zones she has left to travel in years to come. This chimera of an album is a paradox, perhaps, but a living, breathing one—a muchness much to be desired.