It might be difficult to imagine an artist with such fondness for the twee and absurd as Tune-Yards tackling pressing issues like race and white fragility on their latest album, but recent events have wrung politically-charged work from even the most neutral of artists. With the political climate growing stormier by the day and injustices coming to light with distressing frequency, it is nearly impossible to create art in a vacuum anymore. Merrill Garbus, frontwoman of Tune-Yards, has not only punctured the vacuum that her more light-hearted records were conceived within; she has actively sought out enlightenment and incorporated current events into her boppy, upbeat music.
Before beginning work on Tune-Yards’ latest album, “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life,” Garbus went on a six-month retreat where she studied Buddhist meditation and read extensively about the toxicity of white supremacy and fragility. This retreat’s influence is evident throughout the record, which aims to integrate these teachings and hot-button social issues into electric, quirky music that ends up taking itself a little too seriously.
Like most of Tune-Yards’ previous work, “I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life” employs loop pedals, unusual percussion and bassist’s Nate Brenner’s contributions to create a truly unique soundscape that ebbs and flows organically. Garbus’s vocals continue to be the band’s staple: Nobody else can make an ear-splitting wail sound melodic or mine meaning from primitive chanting. The album doesn’t have quite as many earworms or catchy singles as the much more cohesive “Nikki Nack,” released four years ago during a considerably less contentious time, but a few songs manage to stick out. “ABC 123,” though on the heavy-handed side with its protest message, and “Coast to Coast” make excellent use of looping vocals and rhythms to create catchy, bouncy riffs. While the rest of the record is sufficiently buoyant, few other songs match these two tracks in terms of meaningful bubbliness. Tracks like “Honesty” and “Look at Your Hands” are similarly light-hearted but completely lacking in memorable hooks or lyrics.
“I Can Feel You Creep” suffers from an intense lack of focus, a distracting schizophrenia that goes beyond the cluttered, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink composition of Tune-Yards’ previous efforts. The album jumps abruptly from frivolity to well-intentioned, but ultimately tone deaf, statements about whiteness and power dynamics. “Colonizer,” in particular, is the record’s low point, nothing more than a hollow spoken word poem — containing such lines as “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of journeys with African men,” which smack of smarmy self-awareness — with some unenthusiastic beats. Garbus obviously learned a great deal on her retreat, but most of what she is trying to convey is lost in translation, buried under synth and confused lyrics.
The attempt at making a statement with this album is a noble one, clearly guided by the readings and teachings Garbus absorbed. However, the lyrics still read as somewhat self-centered. Garbus is more focused on elaborating on her own white guilt and journey than exploring the notions of race alluded to in earlier tracks. This record is fundamentally about Garbus, not about the topics she is making reference to, which raises the question of whether Garbus — a white woman — has the artistic licenses to try to create an album centered around this quest. Her intentions are by no means malicious or even self-congratulatory, but the unmistakable degree of awareness and performative ally-ship makes some lyrics a little hard to swallow.
Tune-Yards has always been a source for fun, peculiar music with a sound that can’t be imitated, and “I Can Feel You Creep” doesn’t fail on that frontier. As a whole, the record soars by at a zippy pace, bouncing along with only a few major stumbles. While it is easy to listen to this album on a purely superficial level and simply enjoy the zany presentation, the message behind the music must be taken into account. It is important to remain critical of white artists, especially in today’s current musical landscape, which invites musicians to make statements in their work that can ring false in spite of their alleged “wokeness.” Garbus may have studied extensively to learn about her whiteness and reform her ally-ship, but to center an album about those teachings solely on herself is a misstep on this mixed-bag.