One of these things is not like the other. Since the mid-2000s, Merrill Garbus’ Tune-Yards have been producing percussion-heavy, experimental pop with heavy influences from traditional African rhythms and melodies. The duo of Garbus and bass player Nate Brenner made some significant waves with 2014’s
Nikki Nack, and Garbus slid comfortably into a production role on Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s 2016 release, A Man Alive. Her comfortability with odd polyrhythms and complex song structures infused both of these albums with an element of surprise and momentum. The unique mixture of rhythmic complexity and a sensibility for head-bobbing grooves seemed to promise only improvement in subsequent releases.
I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, the band’s first album whose title is more than two syllables long. In the duo’s catalog, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life stands apart in a lot of ways. The multilayered percussion takes a backseat to Garbus’ lyrics and more heavily stacked harmonies. But more than anything, the tracks veer away from the experimental and take a hard turn towards the groovy, the danceable, and even the nearly club-worthy. The album’s opening track, “Heart Attack”, is a fairly straightforward, bass-heavy track complete with slow builds and a powerful drop. “Coast to Coast” and “Now As Then” favor Garbus’ unpredictable and ever-shifting melodic writing and dense harmonies over fairly simple beats. Each track seems to reinforce the idea that this is Tune-Yards’ attempt to bridge their way into more accessible pop sounds and do away with, in some manner, some of their more problematic experimental tendencies.
Problematic being an operative word, because about halfway through the album, the listener is presented with “Colonizer”, a song that sounds more personal than perhaps any other Tune-Yards song. It is littered with conflicting sounds that illustrate Garbus’ lyrics in greater detail. The song is about privilege and her use of African influences in the band’s sound, lyrics, and persona. Does her existence as a white woman make her just another force of colonization? Is there a way to allow that influence while not giving in to crass appropriation? Garbus addresses these questions in the song but never answers it, leaving the listener to conclude that the rest of the album is the answer. And it would appear that the choice is to downplay the intensity of those sounds and that influence. Right or wrong, that is the choice that made it onto the album.
All of this is not to say that
I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is at all bad. For experimental dance-pop, one could do a whole lot worse. “Look at Your Hands” and “Hammer” in particular strike a tremendous balance between rich harmonies and complex rhythms while also being just funky and groovy enough. And the decision to bring out those structured vocal chords more strongly and frequently serves many of the songs well and reveals a different side to the duo. The issue is that, after hearing Nikki Nack, one expects a level of complexity that isn’t quite replicated nor improved upon by I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life. While that kind of comparison may not be exactly fair, it is a testament to what Garbus and Brenner are known to be capable of.
On the whole,
I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life is a truly good album and a number of the songs on it are notable successes, but the stark shift in sonic style sets it apart from the rest of Tune-Yards’ discography and not in a good way. It seems safe, it seems almost timid at times, and that could be due in part to the fact that, as the name suggests, it is more personal, more private. There are fewer layers standing between Garbus and the audience. But it sacrifices memorability for accessibility, and that trade-off keeps the album from being really excellent.