On February 23rd, Tune-Yards performed their new single “hold yourself.” on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Merrill Garbus squirms awkwardly atop a pile of multi-colored bean bags dressed in what appear to be adult-sized children’s overalls. Her facial expressions are eccentric, and her body-language evokes that of a baby still learning how to walk. The first verse is restrained and introspective as she muses on parenthood.
And then comes the hook, anthem-y and celebratory. “We will hold ourselves now,” she repeats. The song is about growing up and about learning how to self-soothe, and what it means to be a parent; or in her case, choosing not to be one. By the outro, Colbert has broken out into a gaping smile. It appears he may not have known exactly what kind of act he was introducing 3 minutes prior, and he looks delighted.
“sketchy.” Tune-Yards fifth studio album is a joyous, psychedelic tribute to self-reflection and growth. Released during this dark but hopeful moment for society, this album has a special kind of resonance. Interestingly, this album was fully recorded before the pandemic began. Garbus is known for her impressive use of looping and sampling vocal arrangements, and here she uses her skills to make an uplifting album that feels like it was written for this exact cultural moment.
There are at least three songs on this album with choruses that are undeniable earworms. In “hypnotized.,” the mesmerizing 3rd track off the new album, Garbus dramatically jumps octaves in a Laurie Anderson- like fashion, complimenting Brenner’s forward-moving funky bass in a way that compels one to dance. Music this interesting is hardly ever without dissonance, though, and in the Tune-Yards’ case it is of more than one kind.
Tune-Yards have an undeniably global sound. The vocal parts are layered in gospel-like configurations and she frequently utilizes call and response techniques popular in Kenyan and Tanzanian traditional music. The rhythmic landscapes of their songs take directly from Haitian counter rhythms and polyrhythms. And the special variety of lo-fi/art-pop on this album is no exception. Certainly, these influences enrich their work, but is there a moral question when two white artists capitalize so heavily on the unique musical styles of people of color? Tune-Yards have faced criticism for this in the past.
Tune-Yards’ last album, “I can feel you creep into my private life.” was a heavily-produced pop-disco-afropunk record, while “sketchy.” feels like a return to form, reminding fans of Garbus’ first album (recorded entirely on hand recorder). This record was written at home while they sat around with real instruments, and sonically it manages to be digestible while still being pretty freaking weird. Lyrically, it is very personal (and political), but self-aware in a new way that feels new for this group. “I can feel you…” tried very hard to address the issues of cultural appropriation and Garbus’ own white guilt, and trying to fit all this into a fun danceable pop album did not always work. This album is more relaxed – it leans into the uncertainty of now and of everything – and concludes that the best thing you can do, is try your hardest to be the best version of a human being that you can.