Tune-Yards nearly ended in 2018 following the release of their album I can feel you creep into my private life. Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus used the record for some highly necessary introspection into how she, as a white woman creating music built on Afrobeat elements, was complicit in ongoing racism. Afterwards, she considered abandoning the decade-long project she’d worked on with her partner Nate Brenner. The pair took time to reacquaint themselves with their love of making music, not for a particular purpose but purely for their own enjoyment. Garbus also learned more about anti-racism through adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. The result is sketchy., a summery record born of a messy, iterative creative process with a core message of social justice.
Tune-Yards’ latest effort is doing a lot of heavy lifting as an LP, essentially justifying the continued existence of the group. “People come to us to be entertained. And then we also have a responsibility, I believe, to wake people up. Not to tell them how to feel—but to give them space to feel,” Garbus explains, and one can’t help but feel that it’s the thesis statement of the album and a new mission statement for the band. And honestly, she and Brenner pull it off.
Over the course of sketchy., Garbus examines sexism, gentrification and environmental destruction, managing to balance catharsis and sonic revelry. Opener “nowhere, man,” written in the wake of the Alabama bill banning abortion in May 2019, starts us off with a fuzzy bassline and a playful mishmash of percussion. The uplifting tones, complete with Garbus’ resplendent voice climbing into the stratosphere, center her direct lyrics informing white men that “screaming babies are your problem.”
On the industrial-inflected track “homewrecker,” she looks inward and challenges white listeners to examine their own participation in gentrification. Deep, distorted vocals echo Garbus as she sings, “Thinking ‘bout your money / Think about the homes you wreck,” in direct contrast to the high chipmunk voices later musing that “Oh somewhere there’s a place I’ll find my / rhyme and wind up nowhere that is mine.” This vocal juxtaposition shows the harmful methods white people use in gentrification, putting on an air of victimhood or innocence in the pursuit of a “safe” place to live while in the process destroying others’ homes and safety.
“hold yourself.” sees Garbus turning her gaze to boomers, their impact on our environment and the empty promises they’ve made to future generations. The song floats in on new wave-esque synth, appropriate considering which generation pioneered the genre, and Garbus proclaims that our parents “held us close and dear / and told us lies that they’d been telling themselves for years.” For all of their good intentions, “parents betrayed us even when they tried” through their reinforcement and passing on of harmful systems, whether that be on a personal level or on a grander scale, like with climate change. Garbus’ insistence that we will “hold ourselves now” on the chorus is one of the most stirring moments on an album made to move you, whether physically or mentally.
The tracks with less explicit meanings still add a sense of fun and wonder to an album that’s founded on creative experimentation. “hypnotized” employs strange, whimsical imagery—“The trees are in the meadow / The cows are in the trees”—before Garbus breaks into another refrain that begs you to join in: “Look into my eyes.” Tune-Yards channel The Go! Team on “under your lip,” turning Garbus’ voice into an instrument and bringing in a sunny synth on the chorus. Few lyrics on the album are quite as evocative as the line, “My skull and teeth being slammed like the shell of a clam on a slab of cement.”
Garbus and Brenner may have gotten back in touch with the basics of what makes them love music, but their sound remains much the same—in the best way possible. Tune-Yards continue to make meaningful and joyful art after the watershed moment of reckoning on their last album.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.