After Merrill Garbus released her sophomore album, w h o k i l l, as tUnE-yArDs in 2011 and subsequently spent the majority of the following year touring in support of the record, she dropped off the radar. Simultaneously a conscious tuning out from the pressures of being in the spotlight (the album landed on many year-end polls in 2011, including a #1 spot on Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop poll) and a search for Garbus to centre herself once more, she spent her well-deserved downtime expanding her repertoire of world beats, taking Haitian drum and dance lessons. A curious thing happened in early 2013, however, when she sat down to write what would become nikki nack: she had nothing. No ideas, no inspiration, no demos. For a prolific artist that constantly had stems of ideas on the go, living on her looping pedal, it represented a break in her oeuvre, a rebirth of sorts where Garbus would reinvent herself and push her career forward with nikki nack.

Forcing herself to record at least two demos a day under strict constraints — one day would be defined by writing solely on drum machines, others would have to start with a vocal melody, first — she began to build the demos that formed the groundwork for nikki nack with laborious intention, working deliberately and carefully, almost as if recording a debut album rather than the third entry in a celebrated career. In this sense, nikki nack sounds like an extension of w h o k i l l, which featured Garbus using the full breadth and depth of a professional studio (rather than a patchwork of loops that defined her debut, BiRd-BrAiNs) to explore different possibilities and arrangements. From the first electronic warbles that power up the lead track, “Find a New Way,” nikki nack is tempered in its approach and meticulous in its arrangement, though it is a testament to Garbus’ joie de vivre that the album maintains the gleeful weightlessness for which tUnE-yArDs is known.

Tune-Yards-Nikki-NackGarbus delights in playfulness, despite the often serious, revolutionary undertones that frame her work. tUnE-yArDs flits across geopolitical borders like a thief in the night, poaching influences from across Caribbean and African sources with impunity, colliding them in percussive songs that act as percolating melting pots rather than formal pop songs. It’s a fine line she strides — too far in either direction would open her up to not-unfair criticisms of post-colonial privilege or a frivolous engagement with non-Western cultures — but her marriage of pan-African beats and percussions with more recognizable, Western, electronic-influenced ideas has been honed to a rigorous thesis by now.

Garbus sounds as confident as she’s ever been on nikki nack, a product of pushing her boundaries as an artist. With the added benefit of having been able to take considerable time off to tune out a reset, Garbus returns with fresh energy and enthusiasm. nikki nack is categorized by a sense of continuous discovery and imagination as Garbus runs the gamut of her inspirations, drawing heaving from her trip to Haiti in 2013. She’s not afraid to encounter her own past self, either, on her journey towards new discoveries, as she does on “Left Behind,” a track in which a tale of two artists dances seductively across a childhood playground: you can almost feel the red dust kick up around her feet as she works through nostalgia and distortion.

In the process of encountering herself and working through her own histories as a musician, Garbus will inevitably turn to face the audience and create friction between their expectations of her music, as well as her expectations of their reactions. But it is in this friction, in this tension, that nikki nack has the opportunity to create a space for itself and open up a conversation not only about what it means to make certain influences overt, but what it means to grow and progress as an artist.

By Pablo Perec
Illustration by Smokey Draws

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