There’s something about going to Haiti that changes a musician, at least in the past year. Look at what happened to Arcade Fire. They went to Haiti to record their brilliantly conceptual album Reflektor and came back with some esoteric knowledge and newfound sense of humanity. Not only can you hear it in the album’s sounds; you can hear it in the lyrics, too.
The same has happened to tUnE-yArDs’ front woman, Merrill Garbus. Traveling to Haiti to study drumming with Haitian-born teacher, Daniel Brevil, Garbus noted her trip as a core influence in the development of her latest work. On Nikki Nack, syncopated drums, primal screams and beautifully dissonant harmonies tangle and snarl to irreconcilable degrees. Garbus’ chesty, idiosyncratic screams structure her melodies and transcend gender boundaries. If anything, Nikki Nack is the perfect title for tUnE-yArDs’ efforts; here, it achieves onomatopoetic perfection in a way no other title could achieve. Using any and every percussive object imaginable, each track is its own unique “nikki nack” that clanks and clatters into joyful absurdity.
Nikki Nack isn’t so much a departure as it is a refinement of tUnE-yArDs’ sophomore album, w h o k i l l. Calling on Malay (producer-engineer of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange) for the recording process, Garbus’ chaotic dizziness is more streamlined than ever. Combining Malay’s electronic bass jams with Garbus’ new Haitian rhythms, Nikki Nack has both a narcotizing and stimulating effect. For those uninitiated to tUnE-yArDs, however, Nikki Nack is likely to polarize listeners even more than w h o k i l l did. There’s a part of me that believes Nikki Nack will lift Garbus and tUnE-yArDs to a wider, more mainstream audience. But at the same time, I can see Nikki Nack turning a lot of listeners away. It might make you wonder what type of Kool-Aid Garbus has been drinking — or it might make you wonder where you might be able to find some.
There are tracks on this album that can seem annoying. Either you listen with resistance or you let yourself fall into the cacophony. Garbus is bombastic, relentless and propulsive. But she sure as hell has my attention. Perhaps that’s what Garbus is trying to do here. With the messages she’s trying to send, there’s no way to get around that discomfort.
“Wait for a Minute,” a stark take of writer’s block and Western ennui, finds Garbus at her lyrical best: “Monday, the mirror always disappoints / I pinch my skin until I see the joints.” It’s a cultural problem many can relate to: the struggle between beauty, success and productivity. Keeping all three standards of achievement is futile; attempting to do so will leave one unsatisfied, filled with languor and emotional malaise. The only thing to do is “Wait for a Minute.” It allows the mind to reconstitute itself, alleviate the vertigo and make peace in this paradox.
Other album standouts “Real Thing” and “Water Fountain” are equally critical. On “Real Thing,” Garbus shouts, “I come from the land of slaves / Let’s go Redskins / Let’s go Braves.” Building off the controversy over the Washington Redskins’ name, Garbus satirizes the United States’ self-righteous celebration of racism in modern culture. Similarly critical of the Western world, she begs on “Water Fountain,” “Greasy man come and dig my well / Life without your water is a burning hell.” Garbus bluntly condemns the West’s obsession with drilling oil. Unfortunately, the West treats oil just as scarcely as third world countries treat clean water. The West continues to drill oil, shifting its focus away from clean water and preferring capitalism in favor of humanitarianism.
Nikki Nack often evokes playground songs and chants through oddly playful avenues. Garbus situates her work in youthfulness, yet juxtaposes innocence with complexity and caustic criticisms.
Nevertheless, Garbus has continued to cultivate a genre all her own. She defines herself by what she’s not: an oversexualized femme archetype represented in Western culture. In an essay written by Merrill herself, she says, “The rule is: Don’t try to get it right, just be in the middle of it.” Nikki Nack doesn’t try to get it right. Rather, it situates itself between two very different cultures with two very different belief systems. Only in that condition of liminality can Nikki Nack say what it wants.
4.5 out of 5 stars