There are only so many beats and so many issues you can tackle at once.
Powered by Merrill Garbus (and soon after including bassist Nate Brenner), Tune-Yards once sounded like a minor explosion in process. Even the letters in the band’s stylized spelling were jittery, as Garbus filled her tracks with flustered sounds and demanding lyrics. The mix of social commentary and chaotic production gave the first few releases a rare energy. With I Can Feel You Creep into My Private life, Garbus and Brenner haven’t slowed down, but they’ve focused their sound. After all, there are only so many beats and so many issues you can tackle at once.
The sonic focus strikes first. Garbus has put in her DJ hours and this album has the most club feel of anything Tune-Yards has put out. These tracks might not exactly be bangers, but the house influence carries much of the album, four beats down. That’s not to suggest careful limits to the sound; the duo still bring in their world music influences along with funk, R&B, and more, frequently within a given song. Delineating the threads in each song’s fabric remains less rewarding than enjoying weave. The album’s through-line runs more smoothly here; the frantic energy has been channeled into a series of dancefloor numbers that show some polish, properly dressed for the disco.
Lyrically, Tune-Yards focuses on social justice. Garbus seems fixated on white privilege on this album. At her best, the lyrics put a serious mandate into the joyful tunes; at her most wide-eyed, they can be a little artless. The line most likely to draw attention—“I use my white woman’s voice to tell stories of travels with African men”—sits on this border. We can hear Garbus processing a racial awakening, an interesting moment in a career that’s pulled from such diverse sources. Mixing 808s and race-consciousness works somehow. Garbus’s personality carries writing that could be clunky in its directness.
The enthusiastic “ABC 123” stumbles a bit in that way, with its “But all I know is white centrality,” but its expression of contemporary social challenges scans better than that line. Garbus herself and the music’s buoyancy make that sort of moment forgivable and lines like “Sitting in the middle of the Sixth Extinction/ Silently suggesting the investment in a generator” charming in a going-down-together sort of way. In “Free,” when Garbus sings, “It was tribulation taught me what I truly love,” the past epiphany functions as cathartic resistance.
Garbus keeps (mostly) away from preachiness, and concern for the world at largely causes her to look inward. The charged opener, “Heart Attack,” sounds like panic over the state of the world. When Garbus sings, “I’m only human,” she simultaneously confesses and despairs. She doesn’t rest in that spot, though, using the album to work through what to do, whether in her racial privilege or lack of gender privilege. On “Private Life,” Garbus utters the album’s titular line in a manner that both unnerves and shows an unexpected meaning. The outside world, with its dangers and its injustices and its possible responses, starts to creep in. The track carries the question mark as its primary form of punctuation, yet offers empathy as the answer that’s been bobbing throughout the album. Tune-Yards doesn’t always have the answers, but with strong beats and thoughtful reflection, the duo does offer worthy responses.