I first got into Tune-Yards a few years ago after hearing their song ‘Bizness‘ on a TV show (Transparent, if you’re curious). I don’t normally look up songs I hear on the TV, but I found myself really drawn to the track; it had a certain playfulness to it that loved, with singer Merrill Garbus’s sampling her own voice and playing it like an instrument. I found this same playfulness and inventiveness running through all three of Tune-Yards’ albums when I checked them out, and I quickly began to really love them. They’re a band that fills their songs with hand claps, laser sound effects and weird vocals – like Garbus imitating siren – giving them a sound that’s really unlike anything else.
This playfulness leaks into the Garbus’s lyrics a lot as well, even as she deals with big political and social issues. Their songs have dealt with everything from cultural appropriation (‘Gangsta’) to taxes and droughts (‘Water Fountain’), with Garbus approaching these topics in unique and off-kilter ways. This juxtaposition between Tune-Yards’ fun feel and the serious issues their songs address is a large part of what’s made the band so impressive to me in the past.
Following up 2014’s Nikki Nack, Tune-Yards new album I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life doesn’t abandon these two defining features of their music – it’s still playful and it still deals with heavy issues. Purely musically, it might be the most impressive album that the duo, Garbus and Brenner, have put out yet. It takes their sound in a number of new directions – in particular, a more dance music inspired one. Tune-Yards pull off this new, more danceable sound pretty effortless and I Can Feel You Creep definitely feels like the poppiest they’ve ever been.
‘Heart Attack’ and ‘Look At Your Hands’ make the strongest arguments for a dancier Tune-Yards, with both songs having an immediate appeal to them. ‘Heart Attack’ balances fun and darkness perfectly (I love Garbus’ ‘heart attack-tack-tack’ delivery on choruses) and builds to a fantastic climax. It features Tune-Yards’ usual instrumental ticks, including handclaps and some solid bass work from Brenner, as well as few new sounds, including a very 80s sounding synth. ‘Look At Your Hands’ similarly balances Tune-Yards childlike characteristics (the lyrics punctuated with Garbus’ la-ing) with some very retro instrumentation, shown most clearly by the drum loop that opens the song. There’s even a really nice synth solo – again, very 80s – that comes in towards the end.
Though these two songs were the clear highlights for me, there are plenty of other musically interesting moments in the tracklist, such as the creeping ‘Coast to Coast’ and ‘Colonizer’ with its manic finish. It’s only really towards the end of the album that I think the instrumentation on I Can Feel You Creep becomes a bit lacklustre; songs like ‘Who Are You’, ‘Private Life’ and ‘Free’ come across as underbaked to me. They don’t feel like fully finished songs, rather ideas that still needed a bit more development.
However, it’s in its lyrics that the album falters most for me. As always with Tune-Yards’ albums, I Can Feel You Creep is heavily concerned with social issues – Garbus stated in an interview that the album primarily deals with her own whiteness – but the way that it explores them is a lot less nuanced and interesting than the way the band’s past releases did. While I definitely think it’s admirable for Garbus to discuss her own white privilege and potential appropriation of other cultures (Tune-Yards has always been very heavily influenced by African music), it doesn’t make for a compelling listen. Again, these themes are nothing new for Tune-Yards, but on older songs like ‘Gangsta’ there was a certain cleverness and sense of character to the lyrics that made them shine… Most of the time on this new album, however, Tune-Yards plays things pretty straight.
Almost every song on I Can Feel You Creep is concerned with issues of whiteness; ‘ABC 123’ sees Garbus confronting her own white centrality, ‘Now As Then’ focuses on her guilt for appropriating music from other cultures and on ‘Colonizer’ she addresses the privileges of being a white woman: ‘I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me’. While there’s a sense of creativity to the band’s instrumentation as always, the lyrics definitely feel lacking this time around. Garbus brings up some interesting and important topics but it rarely feels like she has anything worthwhile to say about them.
Luckily, a lot of the tracks (at least in the album’s first half) are able to get by on the strength of their instrumentals, and there are a few where the lyrics do work as well. As I mentioned before, ‘Heart Attack’ and ‘Look At Your Hands’ are great; Garbus keeps the lyrics vague and almost childlike on these songs (especially on ‘Look At Your Hands’), giving them an interesting angle on the topics they address. ‘Colonizer’ is also fantastic. There’s a great sense of synergy between the instrumentation and lyrics, with the song building to a powerful and purposefully uncomfortable climax.
But overall, I Can Feel You Creep is a lot less consistent than Tune-Yards’ past albums. It feels like the band took one step forward and two steps back, taking their sound in an interesting new direction while losing some of their lyrical creativity at the same time. Despite this, there’s still a lot to love here and definitely still worth checking out if you’re a Tune-Yards fan.
Best Tracks: ‘Heart Attack’, ‘Colonizer’, ‘Look At Your Hands’.