By Chris Zuver, A&E Editor
On January 19, experimental pop outfit Tune-Yards released their fourth full LP, “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life.” The twelve-track effort sees the duo continue down the path of synthesizers and drum machines while incorporating elements of Haitian and Kenyan music. While it’s an enjoyable album, it comes across as top-heavy, meaning that they come out strong but begin to lose focus as the album wears on.
Tune-Yards started as a project in 2006 by Merrill Garbus. In 2008, after releasing the first album under the name, she relocated to Oakland where she teamed up with bass player Nate Brenner. Since then, each album has been unique and has generated some minor hits such as “Gangsta” and “Water Fountain.” The music is generally considered pop, though it also incorporates elements of African and Caribbean music, soul, funk, EDM, and hip hop. What is truly outstanding about the music, though, is Garbus’ singing voice, which falls into a contralto range, often giving it a powerful and androgynous quality.
All of these elements are in the new LP; in fact, all of them and then some. “Private Life” is Tune-Yard’s busiest in terms of instrumentation. Layers of piano, vocal harmonies, drum machines, bass, and keyboards cover most of the album. The problem is that the album starts to unravel as it moves from a strong opening toward less-focused numbers.
“Heart Attack” is a great start that progresses from pianos to strings as it builds, with a small break in the middle where, over nothing but strings, Garbus’ proclaims “I’m only human,” before turning right back into a disco beat covered with synthesizers. This is also one of Garbus’ strongest vocal performances to date.
Over the next couple of songs, we are given a prominent topic that flows through the album: politics. “Coast to Coast” is partially about Garbus’ time on the east coast in her younger years and moving to the opposite side of the country, but there is something deeper here. In the chorus, she sings “Right, left, right, left, fantasy fantasy” over a marching beat. In one verse, she sings: “I know your language, but I wish it were silence/The seeds are sown in all the small acts of violence/I was just so tired, too tired to say a thing/Kept my head down, eyes closed, and let freedom ring/We let freedom ring/But whose freedom?”
In “ABC 123,” the lyrics come from a more personal perspective with topical utterances. While Garbus declares that “California’s burning down,” she also states: “I ask myself, ‘What should I do?’/But all I know is white centrality.”
In a recent NPR interview, while discussing the new album, Garbus stated: “A lot of this album is me trying to face things instead of running away from the reality of the world in this era. Thinking, if I could face the realities of climate change, of massive extinction, of white privilege and white fragility, then maybe I could guide listeners into also looking at things and not running away in all the ways that we do.”
Track four, “Now As Then,” deviates from the path of social-commentary and delves into the id. Over a commanding mechanical beat, Garbus declares in the chorus: “Don’t trust me/That I won’t take all the money and run”, entertaining the idea of giving in to selfishness over a powerful stack of harmonies. This one is pure musical fun while exhibiting a nihilistic catharsis.
“Honesty” is a more meditative type of song. And I don’t mean “meditative” in a relaxing manner. It’s bombastic in delivery, but trance-inducing by means of its repetition. A little past the halfway point, the beat drops to an 808 crawl before picking back up whilst Garbus speaks over the music: “Close your eyes/Get in touch/With the physical sensations coursing through your body.”
Next, we are greeted by “Colonizer,” which is another introspective song that focuses on identity politics. In this chorus-less number, Garbus sings in a humble delivery: “I use my white woman’s voice to interpret my travels with African men/I turn on my white woman’s voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends/I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant.” When it comes to politics on this record, this track is an ugly sore. It reeks of white guilt over “cultural appropriation.” You’ve been borrowing elements of other people’s cultures for over a decade, Garbus, so why start feeling bad now? As for the instrumental, it’s basically just a house beat that serves as a means to deliver the message.
Near the end of the song, the music unexplainably cuts out. After several odd moments of silence, we realize that the record isn’t broken as Garbus comes back in and eerily sings in the direct middle of the record: “I can feel you creep into my private life.”
The second half starts with “Look at Your Hands,” which floats over a funky ‘80s electro beat. It mostly feels like an empty pop filler, that reeks of ‘80s nostalgia. I hesitate to call it a bad song, but it’s not a strong point for the overall record.
Track eight is “Home,” which is the first laid-back song on the album and harkens back to older Tune-Yards with its minimalism. Despite some well-placed eerie harmonies, I can’t say much that is positive about this one, other than it makes for nice background music.
“Hammer” is not a bad number, but there is not much that stands out about it. It is repetitive and…well…that’s about it. While lyrics aren’t everything, it’s impossible to tell what this one is about. The hook “He won’t get off my back” is repeated throughout the song with verses that discuss various metaphors that don’t seem to have much to do with each other.
Next is the ethereal “Who Are You”. Again, this one comes across as filler for the most part. I’m assuming it’s about global warming with lines like: “The science is cool/Twenty-three percent as a general rule/Generations pretend/Shut our eyes and hold our breath till it ends.” On the positive side, there is a nice saxophone solo near the end played by collaborator Matt Nelson.
Two more to go. Track eleven is “Private Life.” This song was clearly influenced by African music more than any other song on the album. The song, according to Garbus, references two of her influences: Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album and South African choral group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who gained prominence after collaborating with him. While it is nice to see Garbus paying homage to her heroes, it is unfortunate that this song is mostly forgettable.
Finally, we have “Free,” which focuses on Garbus’ perceived duality of being a white woman. In regards to the album-closer, Garbus’ has stated: “I’ve spent a lot of years working on owning being a woman. Of course, I’m free – I’ve just spent this whole album talking about how privileged I am. But, ‘Don’t tell me I’m free,’ that’s what came out. And I try to respect what gets channeled, even if it feels wrong.”
Musically, the song is not that interesting, if you ask me. But, like all music, it is subjective.
Personally, I still stand by my first statement: this album is top-heavy. The first half would have easily made for a great five or six song EP.
Now, I have had my issues with past Tune-Yards albums, but if I were recommending an album to newcomers to the group, I would point them toward one of their previous LPs. Still, there are some great songs on this new album. Unfortunately though, it starts to fall apart by the time it gets to the second half.