The first voice you hear on w h o k i l l is an old woman’s: “Ladies and gentlemen, Merrill is . . . performing at the . . . ,” she says, stumbling over her words before being interrupted by the thump of a drum. Then comes the thump of a second drum. And on top of the second drum, a third: three drums, thumping in unison, quickly. Then comes Merrill Garbus, already kicking: “My country, ’tis of thee.”
Garbus, whose musical project is called tUnE-yArDs, is 32 years old, has an asymmetrical haircut, and carries herself with the tough but friendly confidence of a girl running the oven at a vegan bakery. She’s a yelper, a face-painter, and a schoolyard terror, 95 percent ya-yas, the kind of performer who would be more effectively introduced by something falling—a stack of dishes, maybe, or a bookshelf.
“Ladies and gentlemen” and “My country, ’tis of thee”: These are words you’ve heard hundreds of times that purport to belong to approximately 307,000,000 people. Garbus taking them and trying to make them her own—the lyrical equivalent of cupping water—is the first way she asserts her ambition.
And w h o k i l l is ambitious. Garbus’s sound—primitive in execution, but sophisticated in composition—spans ’90s-style bohemian grooves, soul’s inherent yearn, reggae’s bounce, and early hip-hop. The arrangements are all indeterminately tribal, heavy on bass, looped vocal chants, tom-toms and hand percussion. (A live video of “Bizness” from last year features three standing drummers playing very basic parts on very basic kits—an emphasis on communality, not division of labor.) Garbus mostly plays ukulele—for folk color—and saxophones fill in the empty space. The instruments all sound semi-distorted, bullying their way into the mix, but nothing overrides her voice, a redlining force that breaks from flutter to screech in the span of a bar. I’d think she must realize how cumulatively exhausting the album is—for most of it, she’s running.
It’s also an album of singular vision that sounds like it’s being narrated by 20 different people—a statement of radical individuality made by a kaleidoscope. The emotional and political scope reminds me more of an artist like Stevie Wonder than it does most of her peers, like she realized that writing from her own heart with her own voice also means writing through the hearts and voices of your friends and neighbors. (Even the “Ladies and gentlemen” routine echoes Songs in the Key of Life‘s opening shot: “Good morn and evening, friends.”)
w h o k i l l is a feminist album, or it’s at least an album whose primary perspectives are women’s. But where Laurie Anderson wrote cannily about issues like wage discrepancies between men and women on songs like “Beautiful Red Dress,” Garbus sounds more concerned with less institutional kinds of friction: “Would you call me naïve and an idealist,” she sings on “Killa,” “if I told you that I am disheartened that in this day and age I do not have more male, black friends?”
Well, I would, a little, except that she follows it by saying, “I cannot take it I’m so hip!” It’s the kind of quick but incisive societal portraiture that leaves a rock in my gut without making a judgment of any kind—and as if it wasn’t enough on paper, the lines play out over a brisk, propulsive bassline that sounds like the South Bronx, circa 1979: The cartoonish apocalypse of a Women’s Studies department descending on the b-boy battle.
All the album’s knots are tight, but some are tighter than others. On two songs, “Riotriot” and “Doorbell,” she professes lust (or something even more scarring) for police officers who have done violence to members of her family, invoking the feminized sway of island rhythms and cooing of ’60s girl groups—rhythms and sounds that suggest sexual magnetism and vulnerability. (Toward the end of “Riotriot,” the rhythms break down into a long, noisy passage interrupted by Garbus screaming, alone, “There is a freedom in violence that I don’t understand, and like I never felt before”—all of a sudden, the girl who cowered in the doorway as policemen raided her house is out in the streets and throwing stones, ecstatic.)
These are long, complex stories condensed to five-line slogans written on freeway bridges in neon paint. w h o k i l l barrels ahead without water breaks, and its intelligence bears out in the way lines and passages bounce off each other, not the lines themselves—it’s about context and juxtaposition, not subtext. It’s violent in the way collages are violent, filled with visible stitches, jagged edges, and abrupt breaks.
But for all its ironies, w h o k i l l is a passionate record, not an analytic one. Just so Garbus isn’t mistaken for the kind of sociologist who forgets to account for herself (or the kind of hetero feminist who doesn’t acknowledge her own sexual instincts), there’s “Powa,” a torch song that passes through the line “My man likes me from behind” on its long ascension to notes usually left for Mariah Carey—left for the paradigms of pinups, earth mothers, and other kinds of women that make adolescent boys nervous. The tone of the songs is joyful and the themes are mostly related to togetherness. She isn’t just thinking about people, she’s sweating with them.
So much of the album—both in sound and in rhetoric—is what I guess you’d call “politically correct,” a term I forgot around 2000. Garbus plays the eclectic white liberal who burns to know what a girl’s to do if she’ll never be a Rasta (her words, not mine). It’s probably a pertinent question, but in 2011 it seems borderline corny, especially when your songs are spelled “Bizness,” “Powa,” and “Killa.” The occasional upright bass and scat singing don’t help. But Garbus tempers those impulses and deflates those perspectives so carefully—”I’m so hip!”—that she now joins a band like Vampire Weekend in seeming cool for confidently embracing styles and gestures that seem contextually uncool. (That’s how I read it at least, even though it makes my head hurt—the short way of putting it is that she seems artistically self-aware, which is always a good look.)
w h o k i l l is a gunshot, or a brick through a window. It doesn’t make room for its listener, but then again, that’s an offer tight-fisted and hard-headed artists often make: Take it or leave it. It won’t be admired for its subtlety, because it doesn’t have any. But it’s also pretty convincing in positing a world whose most interesting issues don’t play out through subtlety, but through friction and collision. Its situations are morally troubling but completely irreducible. How old-fashioned, you might think. But Garbus’s engagement is loud and hard to ignore. That she engages without despair is the part I find most admirable of all.