Merrill Garbus has an ear for the insidious forces that shape a person’s sense of self. She’s written complex songs that allow pleasure, guilt, and confusion to coexist without contradiction. Her music understood that you could be a feminist and hate your body, bemoan gentrification while enjoying the spoils of its sprawl, loathe violence yet find it incomprehensibly liberating. Moreover, she conveyed that you could wholeheartedly adore and respect the music of other cultures while still feeling a profound moral ambivalence about being a Connecticut-raised white woman releasing records that draw liberally—and ultimately, profit—from African and Caribbean rhythms and singing. These messy nuances were a tonic.
Tune-Yards’ ascent over the past decade parallels a huge shift in social consciousness. Garbus released her debut, BiRd-BrAiNs, in 2008. The follow-up, 2011’s w h o k i l l, brought discussions about police brutality, race, and social inequality to the fore in an indie-rock arena that was hardly talking about these issues, much less making the space for musicians of color to explore them on their own terms. Its prominence was simultaneously a biting indictment of a myopic culture and genuinely valuable for listeners who had never before been challenged to consider these topics. But were Tune-Yards to debut now, perhaps they wouldn’t get a pass. Black artists now have a long overdue voice in alternative music, and consumers (particularly of the kind of music Garbus makes) are hyper-conscious of representation and who has the right to tell a story.
Garbus is also acutely aware of this—how the platform her identity has afforded her and the cultures on which it was built look right now—and sets out to explore these tensions on I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. It’s a purposefully confrontational piece of work, mercifully aimed more at destroying her ego than buoying it like Macklemore or Amanda Palmer have done in the past. But the subtle “creep” that was once her specialty becomes a deluge. The voices of white guilt are practically the totality of the work. It’s frequently a difficult listen, and not for the reasons Garbus intended.
On Tune-Yards’ third album, 2014’s Nikki Nack, Garbus and collaborator Nate Brenner added R&B to their joyful noise, making for a slower, stronger record. For I Can Feel You..., Garbus immersed herself in the history of dance music, and the breadth and delight of her studies often shows. “Heart Attack” opens the record with a fiery disco whirl full of drama and opulence, spiked by Garbus’ rat-a-tat vocal assault. “Honesty” turns her sampled vocals into clarion chaos, fragments of lyrics occasionally blooming out from the choppy rhythm: “Do you really wanna know?” she wails, and it plays like a wickedly sly challenge to remember the music’s radical black, queer origins.
Lead single “Look at Your Hands” also makes heavy use of a sampler, but it’s strangely prosaic for Tune-Yards—the gated drums pop, but fail to enliven a tedious vocal hook about ownership that sounds more like being in the club with a very high friend who’s truly appreciating his fingers for the first time. The slow songs also feel a little indolent and uncertain. “Who Are You” drifts on a gauzy dancehall chirrup, and “Home” is dread-less dub. There are moments of sensuality—the mournfully slinky “Coast to Coast,” “Now As Then” with its libidinous anxiety—but the music’s bodily satisfaction jars against gauche lyrics that kill the vibe. Perhaps that’s the point.
Garbus educated herself on whiteness while making the album by reading, joining activist groups, and undertaking a “six-month-long workshop on whiteness at East Bay Meditation Center.” When the United States is ruled by a UN-certified racist, it’s a pretty good idea for any white citizen to learn about issues of racial privilege and injustice, to do their best not to perpetuate them, and to listen. But there is a fine line between accountability and aggrandizement, and I Can Feel You... often succumbs to the latter.
Much of what Garbus addresses is true but without inquiry. “Coast to Coast” impugns liberals (herself among them) who waited until it was too late to speak out against injustice and mocks their blinkered utopian suggestions to “build a sky, build it big enough to hold us all.” “Colonizer” sounds like Mr. Oizo’s “Flat Beat” reassembled in a haunted junkyard, accurately detailing the dominance of Caucasian beauty standards and the racial stereotypes that give white women the benefit of the doubt not afforded to women of color. Despite its unarguable premise, it is a uniquely indigestible song: “I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men,” Garbus sings in a sour sing-song. “I comb my white woman’s hair with a comb made especially, generally for me.” She continues, “I turn on my white woman’s voice to contextualize acts of my white women friends/I cry my white woman tears carving grooves in my cheeks to display what I meant.”
These are not new themes for Tune-Yards, but they are newly inelegant. Compare “Colonizer” to a verse in Nikki Nack’s “Water Fountain” where some change from a slice of cherry pie is a “blood-soaked dollar” that “still works in the store,” a sweet, violent parable about American capitalism. The title of “ABC 123” is a joke about how nothing is simple in the “new reality,” and is accordingly muddled. The relentless tirade spins like a runaway disco ball and touches on wildfires, white centrality, Garbus’ “pre-polluted fetus,” greed, the NSA, and how only unity can win the next election. She acknowledges the deep roots of racism (structural and internalized) on “Honesty” and “Private Life,” and wonders what community looks like in a godless society on “Who Are You?,” asking, “Communion is old, but what makes a community whole?” Some subsequent lyrics about global warming suggest that this universal environmental catastrophe will ultimately unite us. Perhaps it will.
It’s a bleak, complex prospect that’s more appealing to parse than the fear of being berated for one’s complicity that colors much of the record: Discussing internalized racism with the Financial Times, Garbus said, “In a callout culture, where the most horrible thing is to be shamed online, it still feels scary to talk about that.” Talking about systemic racism is crucial; centring white helplessness in its face, as Garbus does here, less so: As soon as a white person frets that they’ll never be enough to bring down an unjust system, she saps energy from a more important conversation. And for all Garbus’ emotional risks, her adventurous music no longer feels like the place to have it.