The drums will always get you going. Take away drums, and you’ve probably got some placid folk song or a butane-torch-bearing ballad. Tranquilize the tempos too much and you’ve either got woozy, contemplative trip-hop, or you’ve got a nostalgic, breath-catching slow dance for night’s comedown. But drums — via live kits, Casio samples, or electronic pads — are best employed to propel the body: whether inspired from seminal techno, from West African music, or from modern avant-garde noise-pop, the cadence keeps us beating on, bodies against the current and into varying states of dance.
The drum is the only musical element amid Merrill Garbus’ intricately arranged songs that could possibly contend as a standout against her voice. Because with tUnE-yArDs, no matter how quirky the sound of the song, it will always come down to her voice, with its raspy roar that can dip into salving softness, only to paddle over punchy rapid-fire delivery like a breathless poet who can’t hold back the catharsis of a chant; her melodies feel exertive, and the delivery of her words evokes something akin to a clenched fist bracingly bumping one’s own chest to stoke the diaphragm.
There is her voice, and then there is the beat.
“Oh my god, I use my lungs (Bless my lungs! Bless my lungs!)/ Soft and loud, any way feels good (Bless my lungs! Bless my lungs!)” These words fill the bridge of “Real Thing,” a montage of a jittery dance track that showcases nearly all of her proclivities: provocative lyrics, grating synthesized bass booms, buoyant vocal melodies, and inviting-yet-agitating beats (notably, Garbus helmed the programming/arranging throughout most of the album).
“Oh my heat to beat my bones (Bless my lungs! Bless my lungs!)/ Perched atop my drumming throne (Bless my lungs! Bless my lungs!)”
Her voice swells and rages, like a mylar balloon, expanding almost until it might pop; or like a bonfire, crackling past its stoned boundaries to flicker up at the expanse of air above it. Reaching out. Her splicing of soul with scat, of poetry with pop, is nearing its pinnacle on this album. Much of the music — predominantly bass, synth, uke, and a range of drums/drum-effects with the occasional guitar — is soothingly mellowed for many of the verses, prickled with the occasional storm of grumbled distortions, like a static-y raspberry kiss blown lovingly into your eardrum.
But then it’s back to the drums. The rhythms awaken your shoulders; you start arching them to the beat; you match its accelerations and lock into the dance beat, however erratic — a dizzying and delightful blend of blippy post-techno and hyperfuzzed indie-electronica. Eccentric, sure. Each song feels as though you’re dropped upon the spilling platform of various merry-go-rounds, each populated with colorful characters and disorienting mirrors, revolving at their own capricious tempos. To that extent, then, tUnEyArDs’ type of dance music can feel like a ride, in that you’re not sure which twist the track will take you down, but you’re too thrilled by that last loop-de-loop to really worry over that. The beat keeps you going.
Meanwhile, Nikki Nack’s lyrics spend a lot of time unpacking the wear and tear that these beats can have upon one’s emotions. Namely, the beat of daily life, the beat that goes on. “Today I’m feeling like I’m living on a ledge/ At any moment, I know I’m going to fall off the edge.” These lyrics come from “Wait for a Minute,” possibly the most poignant track here, where the drums are comparably reserved, keeping to a steady (but nonetheless indelible) march, and the synths are able to soar with Garrus’ multi-tracked harmonizing, the voices steadily distorting into a crackle of computery-buzz. It goes on: “I wake up with disgust in my head/ Could not forgive myself another moment spent in the bed.”
Dance music often sanctifies or champions the hollow cause of FeelGoodNow-ism or some other kind of Lost Weekend’s libidinous fucking-about of immature caution-to-the-wind, cavorting with your friends, where nothing matters and no one cares and, you know, you’re dancing like no one’s looking, etc. But not here. You’ll move just as much as any dance club could cajole you to, but the lyrics give a look into the daily concerns — no, the anxieties of our ever-dynamic, ever-eccentrically-styled, ever-endearing singer. “Why do I spend the soul of my day looking for any way to waste away?/ The pain is in the empty time/ Just twiddling my thumbs and hoping for the words to rhyme.”
Other tracks, like opener “Find A New Way,” slide in with a funky bass groove and a breathy vocal melody that follows the drum beats variation between steady saunter to hyper chopped fills, while the lyrics dispel frustration over the present rigmarole (“My dreams aren’t about the future”) and the yearning for, well, something new. “You pull and I bend but I am ready for the end/ ‘Cause I’ve tried, I’ve tried I’ve tried, but it’s a dangerous ride.” That beat, that ride, the next day’s bullshit always coming at you. “I’m never free/ I bend ‘til I break, and every bone is at stake.” The shine of “Real Thing” is astonishing, with a fist-pumping beat under the verses surging into a hand-clappable cadence at the choruses, charmingly warmed with pianos and radiant with the cherubic charm of those triple-tracked vocals hitting urgent falsetto tones. But it all cuts away, taking you out of it just for a brief moment so she can belt out those four words: “I’m the reeeeeal thing!”
But the album is a dance to dispel that anxiety you all must feel: the upkeep of your image, saying the right thing, staying busy, feeling productive, feeling like you’re nice and honest and that you deserve to feel good right before you go to bed, even though you probably can’t sleep. Because your brain keeps talking back, right? For example: Garbus’ most poetic track is “Hey Life,” the one with the most wonderful bass groove, the wildest beat, and the most melodramatic synth hooks. “I look fine on the surface but I’m worried about what’s underneath/ I woke up with a heart beat like a panic attack/ Yakkity, yakkity yakkity yak, I can’t tell my brain to not talk back/ Well, hey life, won’t you push me around/ Like a baby in the carriage til you put me in the ground.”
Can’t do that. Gotta “Find A New Way.” But it becomes deeper than that; it becomes deeper than the esoteric philosophizing over what’s real or whether you, as a person, are “real.” This album demonstrates how anxiety leads to self-doubt (where there’s plenty of lyrical material to mine for that), but then these routines, the beat of our daily life, start to lull us. And once lulled, we become distracted, hiding behind the masks of Facebook/Twitter avatars, which leads to a complacency, a numbness.
So there is this sort of reawakening to something, to the point where you can suddenly feel all the weight and the blows and the exhaustion that all this distracted running has wrought upon your body. The dance songs on here awaken muscles of yours that might have fallen asleep over the last few years. And this is where you see all the disturbing shit — prejudice, gentrification, income inequality, crime unchecked by budget-pinched police, and the burying over of the truth by those who would distort the telling of history. Yes, that’s all here, every day, and all addressed in the lyrics. “Put up a fight/ My pride swelled Glory glory it’s good to be me!/ Ugly one, be you, who you are/ Ugly one, be you, who you are/ Ugly, but pretty… overrated… It’s complicated.” Put up a fight. Resolving to be who you are. Resolving to not say “yes” when what one really means is “no,” which is a mantra from the clackety closer “Manchild,” with its percussion sounding picked from a range of kitchen-ware, woodblocks, and windchimes.
“I’ve got something to say…” she chants, again, her own voice multi-tracked, as the song winds down. Say that to yourself five times. “Left right, right left/ It’s time to meet it head on.”
Dance this way, dance that way. No, stop. Focus. Meet it head on, whatever it is. If it’s been bothering you the last few days, then make this the day that you face it and find a new way.