Credit: Pooneh Ghana
by M.G. Mailloux Ledger Line Music

Tune-Yards | sketchy.

April 15, 2021

sketchy. is a generous, insightful record and a welcome return to the grand balancing act of Tune-Yards’ finest work.

The music that Merrill Garbus and Nate Brenner have made under the name Tune-Yards (once stylized tUnE-yArDs) is born out of a collision of styles and influences gleaned from across the globe, wrangled together by Garbus’s use of looped vocals and percussion and Brenner’s complementary bass rhythms. But while Tune-Yards’ songs have always been complete and full, the seams at which their borrowed sounds are joined have always been proudly displayed — at once in homage to the loop-by-loop way in which they’re assembled, and also as an aesthetic parallel to the band’s thematic exploration of contemporary feelings of dissonance. This approach was cemented as early as the band’s debut BiRd-BrAiNs, back when Tune-Yards was a solo act and Garbus had to arrange each instrument herself, though each new album has borne out a concerted effort to rethink and reconceive in response to cultural conversations of the moment. 2011’s w h o k i l l remains the project’s peak, with Garbus articulating the nagging contradictions of our hypernormalised society long before this was a hot topic in mainstream American art. However, in hindsight, this album had its blindspots, with critics noting hit single “Gangsta”’s dubious, ironic appropriation of the title phrase, a choice that read as particularly glib on an album so liberal in its incorporations of afrobeats and jazz. These criticisms followed Tune-Yards in the years after, which presumably inspired their 2018 album I can feel you creep into my private life, a messy, electronic-skewing record that saw Garbus reckoning with white privilege and such accusations of cultural appropriation; an abrasive performance of self-indictment hard not to read as at least a little aggrandizing.

I can feel you creep into my private life was certainly Tune-Yards nadir, though it may have been a necessary reset, an exorcism of bad energies clinging on from years prior. Their fifth and latest album sketchy. implies as much, finding Garbus in much more confident form, though still very much in conversation with the woes and contradictions of our modern world. As with w h o k i l l before it, the title evokes the spirit of the time, in this case a malaise and uncertainty that permeates most of contemporary art and politics. Yet, sketchy. aims to do more than bemoan and bear witness, and it doesn’t patronize its audience with attempts to prescribe solutions to systemic and existential calamities. Instead, Garbus and Brenner have come together and produced an album inspiring in its pragmatic hopefulness, pop ballads celebrating self-affirmation and reconnecting with humanity. Which isn’t to say that the album’s tone is airy or benign; opening track “nowhere, man” starts things off with layers of clattering drums and Garbus chanting/shouting “Nowhere to run / Nowhere to hide” over them, a literal response to the 2019 Alabama abortion ban that works just fine as a summation of patriarchal terror. Elsewhere, Garbus takes on the spectre of whiteness once more on the song “homewrecker,” though this time adopting a theatrically arch perspective, talk-singing her way through the thought processes of a hypothetical gentrifier. But while songs like these and the cynically-minded “my neighbor” ground sketchy. in relatable human dourness, the album’s ultimate agenda resonates in singles “hold yourself” and “hypnotized,” the former an anthem infused with the spirit of Prince that allows Garbus to flex her impressive vocal range, belting in harmony with herself about striving to break free from humanity’s most toxic cycles. Alternatively, “hypnotized” once again layers Garbus’s vocals into transcendent harmony in praise of deep human connection and coexistence with nature. In this way, sketchy. is a grand balancing act of the sort that Tune-Yards has performed for us in the past, executed with a verve and generosity that had eluded them more recently. It’s something of a graceful return to form, unbeholden to nostalgia for what the band previously was.

Published as part of Album Roundup — March 2021 | Part 3.