Nikki Nack, the eagerly-anticipated third album from New England’s tUnE yArDs, proves that, while there is a fine line between ‘performance art’ and ‘listenable music’, ringleader Merrill Garbus is busily dancing all over it.
Now beyond “experimentation for the sake of experimentation”, Nikki Nack finds Garbus firmly in the creative driver’s seat. The album goes to its usual lengths to sound chaotic, frantic, and off the rails on its surface, but further listening shows tUnE yArDs at their most cohesive.
At this point, they’d better be. 2011’s Whokill demanded attention from Spin and the New York Times alike, proclaimed as one of the year’s most universally beloved. On Nikki Nack, Garbus takes the looped and layered sounds of before and instead delves into something more… joyous.
On the album’s opening track, “Find a New Way”, Garbus cuts to the chase, and shows an intimate awareness of the increasing pressure of being under the spotlight when she sings “Oh, but I trip on the truth when I walk that wire / When you wear a mask, always sound like a liar”. “Find a New Way” also points at the album’s near-euphoric tone, introducing synths, infectious drum loops and video game sounds – drawing influence from contemporary R&B – with harmonies that elicit some of the hottest summer jams. Make no mistake: Garbus sets her sights on art-pop and the album never once forgoes the ‘pop’ quotient.
“Water Fountain” (written after Garbus visited Haiti) recalls the sound of a schoolyard-girls chant underpinning a furious game of double-dutch. The song’s “WOO-HAH WOO-HAH” sing-song chants exudes joyfulness and fun, but its meaning originates in a tragic realism. Fun is nearly irrelevant to the people singing along, and that’s the ridiculous, exuberant feelthroughout all of Nikki Nack.
Garbus’s trademark digital looping effects are still there, overlaying introspective lyrics. On “Hey Life” she boasts “I woke up feeling albatrossy / Flossing my teeth / I look fine on the surface / But I’m worried about what’s underneath”. The song overflows with the spirit of joie-de-vivre, but life’s stumbling blocks protrude. “But I know my days are numbered / I should enjoy the climb / I like to smell the roses but I’m runnin’ runnin / Out of the time.
The most unconventional thing about Nikki Nack is accessibility. Beyond the palatable melodies and (mostly) cheery-sounding samples, Garbus lays out her process of struggle inside the rapid fire, synth tornado. Rarely are albums so earnest and transparent. On “Wait a Minute” she laments “The pain is in the empty time / Just twiddling my thumbs and hoping for the words to rise.”
Beyond the refreshing (albeit challenging) compositions and lyrics on Nikki Nack, there’s just a solid block of tunes here. Yeah, it’s an album you can absolutely listen to alone, with the arthouse appeal of a Laurie Anderson record, but Garbus and co. never once drops the weird bravado of a Talking Heads record, her rhythms, melodies and sometimes silly chants make it hard to hoard the joyfulness to oneself. Best embrace Nikki Nack now; it’s going to be in heavy rotation this summer.
Nikki Nack will be released on May 6th via 4AD.
Essential Tracks: “Water Fountain”, “Hey Life”, and “Wait for a Minute”