By Eli Schoop, Copy Editor
Key Tracks: “ABC 123”, “Now As Then”, “Honesty”
Colonization by way of gentrification is a hot topic in 2018 America, and Merrill Garbus has taken it upon herself to be the white rallying force against this injustice. It’s a noble endeavor to say the least, but Garbus and her bandmate Nate Brenner constitute a contrived effort to combat fellow white hegemony on I can feel you creep into my private life, fumbling the thematic qualities whilst still providing an interesting instrumental framework. Rather than crafting what could be a metaphorical “look in the mirror”, so to speak, Tune-Yards drop the subtleties and leave the listener disconcerted in the process.
Tune-Yards list their influences on Facebook as “Barrington Levy, Odetta, Woody Guthrie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, Ruth Garbus, Bert Brecht, Bjork, Todd Rundgren, Fela Kuti, you.” This eclectic mix is an apt descriptor of their music, which combines with the Afrobeat legacy of a Fela Kuti or a Barrington Levy, with the avant-pop sensibilities of a Björk. “ABC 123” could be a cute Sesame Street ditty if it wasn’t about the horrors of global warming and a degrading nation. Stylistically, the impulse shifts towards dancing, and Garbus and Brenner do a great job at straddling the line between serious topics and joyful compositions.
Despite the zany and rhythmically meaningful way that Tune-Yards make their art, the way they say it feels tone-deaf and perplexing. Part of this may be the boorish way that Garbus exposes her grievances. With lyrics like “I ask myself, ‘What should I do?’ / But all I know is white centrality” and “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men”, the narrative turns pretty cringeworthy. And Garbus knows it too, saying “I cringed all the way through making that song–A lot of people think that I’m making fun of another white woman in ‘Colonizer’. No. This is me.” White guilt becomes no more impressive when one is self-aware about it, even in the face of Garbus’ attempts to be earnest.
Recognizing racism in yourself and in your peers is a dignified and important step in being a better human being. But it’s hard to write and create about this kind of process without sounding like a complete ass, and Garbus doesn’t leave herself enough nicety to truly pull off the delicate balancing act. It’s not Macklemore-levels of self-flagellation, but the liberal arts shame belies a pretty absorbing album, and that sucks.