Album Review: tUnE-yArDs—”Nikki Nack”

By Emma Doerksen

After w h o k i l l was released, Merrill Garbus, the leading force behind tUnE-yArDs, took some time off before crafting her next creation. Unlike w h o k i l l, which was primarily composed during live performances, Nikki Nack is comparatively more calculated, the result of some time spent reflecting.

As the first track of Nikki Nack opens, a sparkly synth melody announces a new sound for tUnE-yArDs. Nikki Nack is the first album where Garbus decided to bring in a producer other than herself, notably employing Malay, the producer of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and thereby making the sound decidedly less organic. Garbus also loosened her creative grip to make room for her partner and bandmate, Nate Brenner, to contribute more, resulting in a writing partnership for most of the album’s songs. However, like all of Garbus’ creations thus far, it is clear that this album is distinctly hers. Nikki Nack is equally as strange and vibrant as w h o k i l l and BiRd-BrAiNs, containing much of what gives tUnE-yArDs a distinct musical identity.

Album art for Nikki Nack.

Album art for Nikki Nack

Nikki Nack moves in waves, reaching peaks of playful ruckus such as in “Sink-O,” and then pacing itself again during tracks such as “Wait for a Minute.” It also oscillates between minimal arrangements of only voice and percussion and meaty arrangements of hyperactive percussion and playful synth melodies. Throughout the highs and lows of the album, one thing that remains consistent is the commanding presence of Garbus’ voice. In “Real Thing,” she wails, “Oh my god I use my lungs / Bless my lungs, bless my lungs, clearly demonstrating her awareness of her voice’s power and, as always, she wields it with confidence.

tUnE-yArDs have always been a little goofy, or at least off-beat, but Nikki Nack is more nonsensical than ever. The lyrics are whimsical, and halfway through the album there is an interlude entitled, “Why Do We Dine On The Tots?” that sounds a bit like a schizophrenic puppet show. Nonetheless, tUnE-yArDs are able to be taken seriously. With lyrics discussing body image and white liberal guilt, it becomes clear that this album is only zany on the surface, and underneath lies intelligent wordplay and mature themes.

Garbus continues to wage war against society’s unrealistic expectations of the female body in “Manchild” in her assertive howls, “I mean it: don’t beat up on my body!” This familiar theme may make an appearance on this album, but a new theme seems to emerge, especially present in “Wait for a Minute” and “Find a New Way”: the struggle to avoid passivity and inaction. “Wait for a Minute” is a beautiful illustration of this, with softly cooed back-up vocals and a gliding synth melody. However, even in songs that are vulnerable in content, Garbus’ delivery is always confident, as if triumphing over any vulnerability.

tUnE-yArDs have established themselves as a group that treads off the beaten path; their sound does not seem to fit into any of the main veins of current music, and they instead draw inspiration from Afrobeat and who knows what else. Once again, they stepped into new territory, now exploring a more electronic sound and slowing down the overall pace of the album. Nikki Nack makes its goal clear from the first track of the album; it asks the listener to come out of what they are comfortable with and embrace the new. (4AD)

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