tUnE-yArDs – Sketchy
Released March 26th, 2021 on 4AD Records
Merrill Garbus has always seemed at complete ease fitting into complicated polyrhythmic soul songs, but she hasn’t always been explicitly comfortable with it. Her first three albums with Nate Brenner as tUnE-yArDs have gone in on bouncing head-nodder beats with Garbus’ signature ranging blend of jazz and soul expounding on heavy ideas over top. When they hit the big time blogs in 2011 she was singing – at time playground chanting – about inequality, police brutality, and the violence of Oakland neighbourhoods. Her next two albums turned toward dub and electronica for influence, with 2018’s non-charting I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life being a darker and more self-critical affair than 2014’s Nikki Nack. In the aftermath Garbus publicly mused about running out of inspiration and then wound up doing the score for Boots Riley’s magically pointed Sorry To Bother You. This prompted her to return to the anger of her earlier albums, and that was what she was working on finishing up just as the pandemic hit.
Sketchy, delayed by the plague, has nonetheless arrived at the right time. It’s spring in the second year of the pandemic and people are getting stir-crazy, needing to move and work and dance. We’re also angry; everywhere you look, the people who are supposed to be in charge of things are making an absolute dog’s breakfast of every aspect of existence. The streak of righteous anger running through the world is stronger than it has been at any time since the World Revolution and it doesn’t seem to be ebbing any time soon. Sketchy, then, is very much an album of it’s moment, a treatise on race, climate change, and gender dysphoria that moves with a world-rhythm that bubbles under with a heavy streak of funk. It hits the spot much better than its predecessor; these songs hit with a bite that has been subsumed to greater or lesser effect since w h o k i l l. In a sense Garbus goes back to her wild impulses, but she maintains the grander scope and higher production values of her later work. The effect is explosive, an artillery blast of heavy dance music that functions exceedingly well as a soundtrack for the slow-leak collapse of late capitalism.