The first time I heard Merrill Garbus, aka tUnE-yArDs, I was watching the Netflix series Orange Is The New Black. I found Gangsta (from 2011′s WHOKILL) by Googling the lyrics, and from that point on I was transfixed by her unpredictability and the unique nature of her music. In any tUnE-yArDs song, there are about a million things going on. Her music and nature is, putting it as simply as possible, otherworldly. On Nikki Nack, her third album, the music whirls in pandemonium in the sky, but Garbus’s lyrics anchor her music in earthly humanity. On the track Look Around she sings, “On the one hand there’s what sounds good/On the other there’s what’s true.” Nikki Nack manages to straddle both with wit and tact.
In the video for Water Fountain, Garbus portrays herself as a weird, goofy art teacher. Nikki Nack as a whole feels like an extension of that. The songs have a natural narrative feeling, telling tales in an effort to provide advice to the listener to be more open-minded, like in Find A New Way and Sink-O. Advice is implicit in the album’s interlude, Why Must We Dine On The Tots? which sounds like she is reading a story to a classroom of children. It’s a cautionary tale about thinking for ourselves, and thinking critically about the information we are given.
She also creates stories in order to explain her own personal experiences. In the subdued, R&B-influenced track Wait For A Minute, tUnE-yArDs seems to be working through some serious emotions. She croons, “Today/I couldn’t stand to be all alone/And sick of hearing my voice on the telephone/A thousand roads to injury/Most of them so smooth it doesn’t feel like they’re hurting me.” The moments of real vulnerability and sadness are an interesting change from her usual bright, optimistic vibe.
The great thing about tUnE-yArDs is that you don’t have to choose between what sounds good and what is true, because she blends both together masterfully. She sings about important topics like political and personal turmoil, and how hard it is sometimes to achieve happiness. All the while, her music bops, skips and soars, letting the brightness inside of her glow. At certain points in Nikki Nack, like the track Manchild, her quirkiness feels out of reach, but it always comes back down again to teach you a little something about life, love and letting creativity shine through.