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Tune-Yards - Sketchy. (Album Review)

Wednesday, 31 March 2021 Written by Alex Myles

There is always a lot to unpack whenever Tune-Yards are concerned. Lead singer and songwriter Merrill Garbus makes no bones about her agitator status—she never shies away from large, complex socio-political themes, instead diving head-first into them. That’s no different in the indie-pop outfit’s fifth album, ‘Sketchy.’.

Garbus and collaborator Nate Brenner, who takes production and bass guitar duties, do their usual thing here—paint abstract art using a palette of colours borrowed from jazz, psychedelic soul, Afrobeat and more. While Garbus has been criticised for appropriation, reckoning with her white privilege on 2018’s ‘I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life’, it’s this rich set of influences, presented in such an idiosyncratic and bombastic way, that makes Tune-Yards so unique and affecting.

First track Nowhere, Man almost instantly sets the tone for the rest of the album. Its lyrics on procreation and misogyny are set to a backdrop of ruthlessly unconventional and heavily percussive beats. 

Make it Right. and Homewrecker take similar form. The latter feels like a postcard from a dystopian horror—its vocals are manipulated to haunting effect and Garbus’s lyrics are particularly ear-prickling: “I ate your babies from the nest where you were keeping them safe, I called it safety when I doomed you to both prison and rape.” 

On ‘Sketchy.’, there is a notable motif of ‘fists’, a symbol of protest that Garbus interpolates on Silence pt.1 and My Neighbor. There are also points of reflection—a literal minute’s silence comes halfway through the album—whether feigned or sincere is a matter of interpretation.  

Naturally, a lot is open to interpretation on ‘Sketchy.’ Its acrobatic saxophone playing, jolting synths, and howling vocals certainly will not be to the taste of many. But more objectionable are Garbus’s knowingly hyperbolic and esoteric lyrics on social justice, especially when considering this is coming from a voice of certain privilege.  

Though easily satirised, the clear ambition and talent of this boundary-pushing California outfit demands respect. By any definition of the word, Garbus and Brenner are artists and on ‘Sketchy.’ and their wide-ranging art-pop remains captivating and bewildering.


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