Since 2006, Tune-Yards has primarily been the brainchild of the eccentric musical genius Merrill Garbus. Her music has althways been dominated by a conscious quirk, one that could potentially invite or alienate listeners, not in the least through her freewheeling, androgynous voice. She’s just as capable of belting out a mean falsetto as showing an intimate tenderness – sometimes within the same song. Whether it’s the anxious and hazy lo-fi folk mess of her 2009 debut Bird-Brains, or the nervy and angular post-punk grooves of her more recent output, Garbus always keeps a purposeful ugliness to some sounds, as a way of confronting the listener. This is an aspect that is still very much evident throughout this new album. But however one may feel about Garbus and her quirkiness, it can’t be denied that her music has heart. She seems truly passionate and she really has something topical to say about the state of the world.
In some ways, the ideas for I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life date back to “Water Fountain”, the lead single from her 2014 album Nikki Nack. Garbus ran through a whirlwind of cultural references and darkly humorous denunciations regarding neocolonialism and the economy on this track. But while the lyrical themes were pertinent to the socio-political climate of the times, it feels as though she is somewhat disassociated from the events, as if singing from the perspective of a different character. And so, on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Garbus takes a different tack. Joined in a more permanent capacity by longtime musical collaborator and now-husband Nate Brenner, this album sees another musical departure for the project. Informed in part by her taking up a DJ residency during its making, this album sees the group embracing a more electronic sound, supplemented by synthesizers, samplers and a complex palette of dance beats. Garbus’ signature electric ukulele takes a much reduced role, or is processed to make heavy distorted slabs of sound on songs like “Coast to Coast” and closer “Free”.
In interviews surrounding the album’s release, Garbus has spoken about her resolve to face not just her cultural debts, but the ways in which she tried to sweep them aside. She took it upon herself to meditate on and confront the uncomfortable and ugly thoughts and feelings inside her, which were “creeping”, thus leading her to the album’s title. The language of meditation actually surfaces in the outro of one of these songs – “Honesty”, which deals with denial and ignorance of racism “because it feels so ugly”. It would appear that in many ways, the album is just as much her way of confronting and purging her own deep-lying colonial instincts as it is a way of promoting meaningful discussion about these issues, beyond the album’s content.
With these heavy-handed themes and emphasis on the lyrics, there is always the risk of the lyrical content overpowering the actual music. Thankfully, for the most part, the band manage to strike a balance between the two, with Tune-Yards’ eccentricity still shining through with a synthetic disco and synthpop-influenced sound making for some of their most danceable material. It opens with the sleek electric piano of “Heart Attack”, which sets the tone lyrically, as well as musically. Flaring but thin electro-disco rhythms are filled out with sleek pianos and clanging percussive tones, as Garbus’ vocals are given a robotic quality in how they are chopped up during the first verse. The defeated pleading of “I’m only human” over descending staccato synthetic strings makes for one of the most dramatic moments on the album, especially when coupled with the more empowering and soaring delivery of “Let me speak; let me breathe” elsewhere in the song. “Look at Your Hands” was the obvious choice for the album’s lead single, led by a thin but layered dance beat and a strong, catchy hook with stuttered vocals, making for the most accessible and danceable song on the album. A busy soundscape enters towards the end, closing out with bright chiming synth arpeggios and a pitch-shifting tone. “ABC 123”, the album’s second single, is similarly infectious, with a hook that takes a didactic slant, but which manages not to become grating. The busy live drum work and the stabs of gurgling guitar belie a more abstract and dark undertone to the lyrics, which speak of “California burning down”, and one of the most pertinent thoughts delivered on the record – “all I’ve known is white centrality”.
“Colonizer”, placed at the end of the album’s first half, may be the most direct commentary on racism and colonialism on the album. At first, the lyric “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men” appears to call back to a line in Whokill‘s (2011) closer “Killa” – “I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male black friends”. However, while that song was a tongue-in-cheek mockery of yuppie types and a commentary on tokenism, there is none of that to be found here, as Garbus purges all her “white woman’s” thoughts and concepts. Musically, “Colonizer” may be the most difficult listen on the album, with a sparse but chaotic arrangement over a stumbling beat, filled out by a brief appearance of the ukulele, but ominous and dissonant. The song collapses into a chaos of noise towards the end, as African chants circle around, before suddenly cutting off. Despite being one of the most confronting songs on the album, it is also one of the most interesting, acting as a personification of the demons Garbus is confronting throughout the album, ending with an uttering of the album’s title phrase. “Now As Then” is a similarly ominous crawl of a song, which addresses the inherent colonial instincts Garbus found within herself, as well the desire by people to distance themselves when confronted with others’ racism, as opposed to taking responsibility. A creeping piano line alerts us to the fact that something isn’t quite right as Garbus passionately intones “don’t trust me”. “Honesty” is driven by an intense chorus of digital voices and more complex electronic beats. The chopped up and repeated vocals make for a disorienting feel, with allusions to ignorance – “didn’t know right from wrong”, as the aforementioned meditation outro is broken up by a piercing saxophone. Out of all the songs, maybe the only one that doesn’t really stick would be “Coast to Coast”, a plodding march with little to it aside from its catchy hook.
The album really slows down and only gets more confused and chaotic as it nears its end, with the vocal and instrumentals sounding progressively more worn down and jaded. “Home” is a darker piano-driven ballad, with Hamir Atwal’s live drums adding to the draggy and (tortured) feel of the song. Garbus intones “she’s a fool” in a haunting falsetto, referring directly to herself. “Hammer” is underscored by the incessantly repetitive hook of “He won’t get off my back”, which is offset by the moody synth pads in the verses, in one of the most low-key and melancholic parts of the album. Partly, it could be alluding to Trump, especially with “living a dream while the whole world drowns”, one of the most arresting lyrics on the album. At this point, Garbus sounds fed-up and defeated, as the song transitions into “Who Are You” as though they are parts of the same song. The synths at the beginning bring to mind the purple sound of Ariel Pink, with a sort of half-reggae feel permeating the song. It is a cloudy and murky song, with ghostly and disembodied voices colouring the background. A wailing and spinning saxophone solo surfaces near the end, only adding to the stark confusion, before fading out into the grey void. The robotic vocals are by now chopped into oblivion, barely there and barely comprehensible. And yet again, a voice comes at the end, keeping us grounded – “It’s okay, all you gotta do is pay attention”. It all culminates on the quasi-title track “Private Life”, featuring a purposefully off-key and off-putting repetition of the title phrase over thick synth bass, coupled with more African chants and a direct quote from Ladysmith Black Mambazo, well known for being featured on Paul Simon’s Graceland (1986), being Garbus’ own nod to the group and their influence on her music. The song also features the phrase “if the music kills, what will the good folk do”, referring to the way that music, though useful in promoting discourse, can’t be the end of it, and it is up to the listener to further the discussion. The album closes out with “Free”, a fiery prologue with machine gun bursts of synth drums and the distorted war cry of the title phrase. The first verse is in stark contrast, with the instrumentation stripped away as Garbus appears alone and at wits’ end. Lyrically, the refrain “Don’t tell me I’m free” refers to how white supremacy can affect everyone, not just those it is directly opposed to. The song closes with a chaotic and disorienting collage of voices and backwards instrumentation, like being sucked into the abyss, before a count-in to “Heart Attack” grounds the listener once again, perhaps with a slight suggestion to repeat the album.
With I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, Tune-Yards have turned down the overtone of eccentricity that dominated their previous works, to deliver a more socially conscious and aware work. In many parts, the lyrics are the main focus, which means occasionally the music becomes less interesting than on previous albums. But for the most part, the more synthetic and dance-based production makes for a welcome change in style, while still retaining parts of the world music influences and eccentricity that made the previous albums great. Whatever one may feel about the issues that Merrill Garbus & co. explore and confront on this record, one can only hope that it promotes at least some kind of discussion among its listeners. But even failing that, there is still plenty of music here just to dance to, and some engaging soundscapes, which is always welcome in these times.