Imagine, if you will, “Blue’s Clues” on acid set to a wild African drumbeat and disorienting synthesizers. This is the first description that comes to mind upon listening to “Nikki Nack” by tUnE-yArDs—an album that is as disruptive as it is sophisticated. The album confronts its listener as something highly cultural, drawn from almost every genre, yet totally alien as a result.
tUnE-yArDs is mainly the project of Merrill Garbus, who incorporates a sing-along, homemade quality to her songs even as they bend the limits of technology with looped tracks and warped harmonies.
The lead single, “Water Fountain,” takes this surprisingly identifiable tUnE-yArDs-ness and adapts it to a format that is (somewhat) friendlier for your average listener than their previous albums. “No water in the water fountain / No side on the sidewalk,” she bouncily exclaims, harmonizing with herself like a chorus of kids. She expands on the motif of a society in decay as her voice builds with each chorus, wailing, “We’re gonna get the water from your house, your house!” Thanks to the stretchy, trampoline-like sound of the drums, it’s very easy to find yourself humming along by the second listen. Never has blood-soaked drought sounded so catchy.
The biggest innovation since 2011’s “w h o k i l l” are the drumbeats, which totally change the dynamic of each song and allow the songs to reach transitions that would otherwise feel impossible. The influence of Garbus’ time in Kenya studying drumbeats and Congolese pop has always been evident, but the years she spent between albums studying Haitian syncopated drumming have obviously left their mark. The pleasing intricacy of these beats, applied not only to drums but also to synthesizers and her wide array of instruments, really carries the album.
Even as the album takes one step away from Western tradition, it takes another back into pop with its tendency toward rich electronic beats. “Stop That Man” enters with a fierce, growling metallic buzz, but the harshness of the beat gets smoothed out by Garbus’ voice in the chorus, weaving in and out of the song as if it were far away, swimming in a stream of glitter and stars. “Left Behind” builds toward some heavily layered electronic funk, bending the synth to fit the patterns of a trumpet, gooey drums, or just a wall of bendy sound.
But “Real Thing” might be the album’s standout. Smoothly switching beats from a jazzy chorus of soft voices to rock roars and chants, Garbus wails, “Just what is the real thing? (oh no) / They say I’m the real thing / ... I come from the land of shame / Blood and guts are all I claim.” It all builds into a defiant howl: “Ugly one be you, who you are / I’m a real thing!”
“Wait for a Minute” starts like space-age elevator music but coasts along into something entrancing in its jazzy steadiness, even if not totally exciting. Like “Look Around,” the song is curious but forgettable, despite the newness of its widely spaced harmonies and polyrhythms. Inventive chillwave is great, but tUnE-yArDs is best when she is wildly out of control, as she is on “Hey Life,” shouting the lyrics to minor chords and escalating harmonies, then falling into a rap over a growing faraway cry before breaking down the beat again.
On the closing song, “Manchild,” she raps: “Oh little manchild / Look at your pants / An accident happens each time we dance.” The song leads into a chorus warning him not to “beat up on my body” and about what saying yes and no really means. It is one of the duller ways to end musically, but lyrically, “Manchild” exemplifies tUnE-yArDs’ trend of Trojan-horsing serious messages in her whimsical music.
“Nikki Nack” is a whirlwind of colorful sound. If you want to shake up your musical senses, look no further.