The opening track on tUnE-yArDs’ latest effort Nikki Nack is named “Find a New Way” and it represents a conscious effort on the part of mad scientist songwriter Merrill Garbus to reinvent herself. While she told Pitchfork that she ditched “Find a New Way” as a working title for the new album because she felt it was “cheesy”, it does ultimately capture the spirit of what’s happening on Nikki Nack: Even though tUnE-yArDs’ rambunctious eclecticism hasn’t mellowed out at all on Nikki Nack, Garbus has, well, found a new way to channel her overactive imagination into song this time around, working with outside producers for the first time and taking voice, percussion, and dance training for inspiration. As Garbus has explained it, her attempt to approach things from a different perspective came from feeling artistically stifled after 2011’s w h o k i l l, which, ironically enough, was considered by pretty much everyone else as one of the more original creative breakthroughs in recent memory.
The crossroads Garbus is at on Nikki Nack is about figuring out the right balance between nature and nurture, between her instinctively omnivorous musical appetites and the new techniques she’s picked up since w h o k i l l. What results on Nikki Nack is still distinctly eccentric, it’s just that Garbus has become more proficient at hiding the seams stitching together the various disparate parts. Sure, some of the genre-busting, border-crossing volatility that made w h o k i l l‘s surprise attacks so startling doesn’t feel as unpredictable and carnivalesque now as before, but Garbus makes up for the novelty factor with a more focused and complete effort on Nikki Nack. That’s readily noticeable from the start on “Find a New Way”, which brings down the volume and streamlines the unorthodox instrumentation of harpsichord-like synths, Nate Brenner’s thumped bass, and ping-ponging electro beats behind Garbus’ versatile singing. Maybe considering “Find a New Way” as a statement of purpose seems cheesy to Garbus herself, but it’s a good way to think about how her music now coheres with its own internal logic on Nikki Nack.
Whether it’s because we’re more familiar with Garbus’ aesthetic or because she’s fine-tuned her touch as an arranger and become a more confident performer, tUnE-yArDs’ approach comes off less herky-jerky on Nikki Nack, its mix of what should be unruly elements coming together in an unexpectedly cohesive and integrated way. Whereas it was once easier to pull apart and deconstruct the parts of tUnE-yArDs’ sound, teasing out world music motifs here, free jazz moves there, punk attitude over there, Garbus has combined these influences in a more fluent and controlled way so that she’s gone further crafting her own musical vocabulary and syntax with Nikki Nack. Here, she creates permutations and juxtapositions that seem natural in her hands, but improbable elsewhere, like with the spoken word-meets-disco intro to “Hey Life” and the way bottom-heavy beats vie with ethereal synths on “Stop That Man”. So “Water Fountain” might be one of those classic tUnE-yArDs ethnomusicology excursions—albeit one visualized with a Pee Wee’s Playhouse-inspired video—but it’s a trip where the far-flung combination of staticky electronics, Brenner’s mellifluous bass, and sparsely clattering beats works so intrinsically well in unison, with no part obtrusively pushing up front and clashing with Garbus’ proverb-like lyrics.
Indeed, the main effect of pulling together the instrumentation more tightly on Nikki Nack is that the vocals become the focal point of the mix, giving the newfound nuance in Garbus’ voice free rein to drive tUnE-yArDs’ diverse, frenetic sound. The atmospheric backdrop on the subtly spacey “Time of Dark” sets the stage for Garbus’ vocal flights of fancy, which builds from a thin, easy cadence to a guttural cry when she proclaims, “Your music’s in your pocket with a power you can’t even imagine!” At the other extreme, the minimal “Rocking Chair” is as homespun and bare-bones rootsy as the title hints at, providing just the right front-porch setting for Garbus to deliver her lines like she’s resurrecting a long-lost spiritual. If nothing else, Garbus herself signals the importance of her voice on Nikki Nack, considering the very first lines on the album speak to how inextricable it is from her artistic philosophy: “He tried to tell me that I had a right to sing just like a bird has to fly.”
It’s as if Nikki Nack is an exercise to bear those words out. The versatility of Garbus’ vocals is the main thing to home in on here, as she moves fluidly and naturally from tossed-off scatting to easy crooning to full-throated belting—and we’re just talking about her tour-de-force recital on “Real Thing”. So when she calls out on the track, “Oh my God, I use my lungs / Soft and loud / Anyway, feels good,” Garbus is giving her own kind of singing lesson, expressing the pure joy in getting the mechanics right. And she pulls off an even more thrilling vocal performance on “Wait for a Minute”, playing it cool with surprisingly smooth R&B-styled cooing. Garbus may be capable of a lot, but her voice’s soulful, evocative tone on “Wait for a Minute” is something you didn’t know she had in her, the fruit of collaborating with a more pop-minded producer like Frank Ocean and John Legend associate Malay.
Of course, as is always the case with Garbus’ vocals, it’s not just how she uses her lungs, but what she’s using ‘em for, her stream of consciousness lyrics mindful of getting across a socially conscious message. On Nikki Nack, Garbus predictably covers a lot of ground in unpredictable ways, freestyling lines about everything from repurposed nursery rhymes to musings on third-world civil wars and race relations, from the tenderest feelings to philosophizing over violence, from life-affirming rallying cries to screeds on body image and gender dynamics. The floating, dreamy “Look Around”, for instance, is tUnE-yArDs’ idea of a love song, with Garbus cooing sweet nothings ,while relating how “Our friends have died waging war against their rulers.” With a stronger, more upfront voice on “Real Thing”, Garbus doesn’t just wade into controversy and identity politics, but cannonballs right in, as she unabashedly chants, “I come from the land of slaves! / Let’s go Redskins, let’s go Braves!”
If anything, Garbus’ approach to her lyrics is indicative of tUne-yArDs’ artistic mindset as a whole, as she lets her creative energies run free while never losing sight of a sense of purpose and meaning to Nikki Nack. It’s just that who knew that what it took for Merrill Garbus to stretch herself and go in new directions was to find more of a focus.