Tune-Yards – ‘sketchy.’ review: playful pop for painful times

Loose optimism and tight despair drive the Californian duo's fifth album, a tale of social injustice softened with colourful soul-pop.

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Tune-Yards are a Trojan horse of a band. From their colourful Wacky Warehouse of sound emerge dark, difficult subjects, and their fifth release, ‘sketchy.’, maintains the ruse: guns, gravediggers, and ghosts roam the tracks of an album as playful as it is dead serious.

The project of Oakland’s Merrill Garbus and partner Nate Brenner, for more than a decade Tune-Yards have peddled their trademark chirpy alt-pop, borrowing hard from soul, R&B, Afrobeat, and clubland, to frenzied effect. But after four albums, and a film score for Boots Riley’s masterful ‘Sorry To Bother You’, the pandemic halted the touring and promo cycles that had left Garbus feeling “complicit in all of the systems that I really don’t believe in”.

‘sketchy.’ is the mostly happy result of that pause. Garbus still dips a toe in the sticky waters of white privilege – “in my voice you can hear what I owe / it’s a debt from a long time ago / poisons all of the seeds that I sow” – but she’s thankfully quit some of the hand-wringing that defined their previous release, 2018’s ‘I can feel you creep into my life’.  

Musically, though, ‘sketchy.’ mines the depths of the duo’s career, from their early indie optimism to recent experimental tech wizardry. ‘make it right’ proffers looped vocals and biting synths, while the sonic dissonance of ‘homewrecker’ echoes the distance between right-wing politicians and ordinary reality.

On stand-out track ‘hold yourself.’, the drums don’t let up, a skeleton of snares that persists even when the song dissolves into heavily layered horns. The percussive stability provides reassurance to a song with a heart-breaking agenda: the aloneness of adulthood. Older generations let you down, and you’ll probably do the same to your own offspring (as the famous Larkin poem goes, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do”).

Somewhere within this tangle of anger, love, and longing, Tune-Yards find empowerment. “We all have doubt / we all have rage / we all have trouble being brave enough to turn the page,” Garbus repeats throughout the chaotic coda. But the song loses some of its punch as it moves from specific situation to universal rallying cry.

‘sketchy.’ makes a habit of dancing between the two. The album is littered with tentatively hopeful dictums – “be not afraid”, “go easy on yourself”, “I know what I am! I’m alive” – which either come off as bland and annoying, or invite listeners to colour in their own meaning. Yet the general ambiguity sharpens instances of violence (“my skull and teeth being slammed like the shell of a clam on a slab of cement”) and social injustice, for example abortion laws: “if you cannot hear a woman then how can you write her song?”.

Garbus signs off ‘sketchy.’ with a melodic scream, summing up the deliberate ambivalence the record’s title suggests. Loose optimism and tight despair drive the album in equal measure, and while sometimes ‘sketchy.’ is too vague to land, at other moments, it shoots straight at the heart.

REVIEW OVERVIEW
Tune-Yards - 'sketchy.'

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