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Review by Oscar Jelley
The Tune-Yards project has always been a political affair. Lead singer and nominal embodiment of the band Merrill Garbus isn’t afraid to wear her beliefs on her sleeve, and earlier efforts such as 2012’s acclaimed ‘w h o k i l l’ tackled traditional gender roles and the economic structure of capitalism under which we all live. I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is a similar hodgepodge of themes, running the gamut from intersectional feminism and cultural imperialism to, perhaps, recent political earthquakes and more personal controversies. To Garbus, art is protest, and right now, she seems to say, there is plenty of need for it.
At first, the album makes this abundantly clear: on press tours, the band has sold the album as ferociously topical, and this is reflected not only in the lyrics, but in the urgency of the music itself. Chunky beats, ear-worm hooks and Nate Brenner’s bass-lines provide a consistent framework for the schizophrenic vocals, sampling and extraneous instrumentation that fill the soundscape with the cacophony of protest. Sonically, Tune-Yards has always strained against the confines of genre, and defied easy definition. Wikipedia lists art-pop, worldbeat, indie pop and lo-fi: four notoriously boundless terms that even when considered as facets of her complex sound cannot give an overarching account of the whole.
This heady aspiration often shines through, as always. Catchy opener, ‘Heart Attack’, is a frenetic pop-imitation banger, boasting a catchy hook replete with vivacious charisma, and ‘ABC 123’ is another standout. But it’s a mixed bag: ‘Private Life’ begins with a mesmerising chant and sparse drums, yet – whilst the feeling of accumulation is tangible – it leads nowhere and spins to a disappointingly samey close. Previously, the band has managed to achieve a compelling sense of diversity without straying into jarring vacillation, but a weakness of this album is its periodical tendency to play it safe. The great tracks set a high benchmark, and the weaker ones struggle to meet it.
Lyrically too, the album is somewhat inconsistent; for every interesting or artful exploration of the state of the world there are a few trite wokeisms, perhaps earnest attempts from Gabrus to assert her liberal credentials post-Trump. There is nothing wrong with this of itself; it is the way the truths are phrased, uncharacteristically guileless, disappointing in that they seem to have nothing new to add to the discussion. ‘Colonizer’ begins an exploration of cultural imperialism but is a mere prelude, dipping into the subject only shallowly, and this pattern repeats itself several more times. One gets the sense that punches are being pulled.
Clearly it is not perfect, then, but the raw atmosphere of the album is often electrifying and well worth a listen. Pure in its motives, fierce in its execution, and more characteristic of the age than the cloying pop that so often tops the charts, this is undoubtedly the music of our time; it is the zeitgeist, distilled, for better or for worse.
Image by Elliot Lee Hazel