Where could Merrill Garbus—otherwise known as tUnE-yArDs—possibly go next after her 2011 album w h o k i l l? That album was unique, skittering and felt incredibly complete. So what would Garbus’ next attempt sound and feel like? How could she grow artistically beyond almost perfection?
The release of Nikki Nack provides a satisfying answer to that question. For those familiar with Garbus’ past work, it contains much of what makes her stand out as a singular artist in a crowded indie landscape. It has propulsive bass and drum lines, choruses that hark back to childhood chants with playground call-and-response rhymes and staccato keyboards and auxiliary percussion.
For new listeners, Nikki Nack is also an album that will jolt you out of a complacent listening lull you may have succumbed to over the past year. If it’s possible to say that tUnE-yArDs has created a more “accessible” record, this would be it. Nikki Nack appears to have its edges smoothed, but it is not because Garbus has made a more “commercial record.” Rather, after extensive touring for w h o k i l l’s, the singer and multi-instrumentalist refreshed herself artistically by taking up Haitian dance and drum lessons, followed by intensive time in the studio writing, editing and refining the songs that would become Nikki Nack.
With her artistic growth, Garbus has kept her political edge—one that sneaks up on listeners throughout the album like the post-apocalyptic “Water Fountain,” and “Left Behind,” a disjointed dance-anthem that highlights nostalgia, urban violence and gentrification. While Garbus’ music is striking, after several listens her lyrics and singing begin to take center stage. She reveals more about life’s daily struggles and victories than most, singing on “Monday/The mirror always disappoints/I pinch my skin back ‘til I see the joints,” on standout track “WAIT. For a Minute.”
Garbus is also unabashedly feminist, taking on gender-based violence, both overt and subtle, in a way that the listener might not realize what they are humming along to until the song is stuck in their heads, such as the album closer “Manchild”: “Not gonna say yes when what I really mean is no/Not gonna say no unless you know I mean it,” and follows with, “I MEAN IT/DON’T BEAT UPON MY BODY.”
As a whole, Nikki Nack is a complex album that shows off an artists’ strengths, evolution and unapologetically strong, clear voice. It’s one to savor and come back to often.