The new Tune-Yards record conceptually asks a lot of its listeners and does it right up front: should the purpose of music be to entertain or to instruct? Of course, many albums try to do both, but few so transparently as sketchy. It begins with a cacophony of noise meant to scare the audience and lines about screaming babies and the nasty rip of human flesh while a female voice proclaims, “people want to hear you sing”. The song itself, “Nowhere, Man” obliquely addresses the fact that men control the conversation and have the power when it comes to abortion rights. Using baby boomer rock references (The Beatles, “Nowhere Man”, Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman”, Martha and the Vandellas’ “Nowhere to Run”), Tune-Yards suggest the limits of liberal best intentions. More importantly, the duo capture the anger at being forced to shut up (and sing) and not have agency over one’s life. The implicit question is, are we having fun yet?
“We all have rage,” Merrill Garbus noted on “Hold Yourself”. She and her musical partner Nate Brenner confront their audiences and themselves with questions about the purpose of art and how it relates to being a better person and improving the larger society. Several songs address contemporary issues concerning race, personal responsibility, and generational guilt in oblique ways that make one think while having a groove on. It is meta-funk without the heavy bass and other genre tropes. The music is more experimental and strange, even while being rhythm-heavy.
And the lyrics are avant-garde and innovative. Consider the opening stanza to “Hypnotized” that begins: “The trees are in the meadow / The cows are in the trees / The people aren’t anywhere to be found.” The narrative does not get any clearer, but that’s the point. One is not in control; one is mesmerized by the ghosts of the past, as seen in a lover’s eyes. This song sticks out because it does not explicitly concern social issues. Yet its inclusion suggests that the personal is political.
That extends even to being quiet in a literal way. Halfway through the album are two tracks called “Silence”. The first, “Silence Pt. 1 (When We Say ‘We’)”, concerns changing the world through self-awareness. This ain’t no optimistic “Man in the Mirror” self-castigation. Tune-Yards understand that we are all just individual drops of water in a large ocean. Real change occurs at the spiritual level. The second track, “Silence Pt. 2 (Who Is ‘We’?)”, is a minute of complete quiet. That’s required for one to hear the truth inside one’s head, as Tune-Yards put it in “Under Your Lip”. Speech can be deceptive.
We are meant to do more than lead our individual lives and just survive. Sure, we all die sooner or later, but Tune-Yards tell us “be not afraid” to enjoy life. That doesn’t give us the right to be selfish. The opposite is true. That provides us with the categorical imperative to watch out for each other and be responsible for the greater good. So it’s the artist’s duty to sing and dance, teach and sermonize. Tune-Yards practice what they preach here, even if their conclusions may seem a bit… sketchy.