tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
tUnE-yArDs – w h o k i l l
BiRd-BrAiNs, Merrill Garbus’ debut album under the tUnE-yArDs moniker, outlined her brand of home-brewed anything-goes pop, but it was in no way adequate preparation for its fantastic frenzy of a sequel, 2011’s w h o k i l l. For this record, she didn’t just go it alone: Garbus gathered together some backing musicians and recorded in an actual studio. The increased production quality is only relative, however. While the album has a more crisp, punchy sound than its predecessor, she still lets all the seams show, giving w h o k i l l a messy, exhilarating pulse. But it isn’t just the production that makes the album the success that it is; Garbus has grown considerably as a songwriter. Though it features many of the same elements of her debut—Garbus’ powerful, torchy voice; the sampled loops; the African polyrhythms—w h o k i l l ups the ante, piling on layer after layer, genre after genre, mashing them together and separating them just as quickly. “Riotriot” flows along on a gentle yet uneasy melody before abruptly exploding into a fit of Latin jazz-flavored saxophone. “Gangsta,” meanwhile, convulses with playful, glitchy starts and stops. Even the softer moments (“Powa,” “Wooly Wolly Gong”) are winners, showcasing the versatility of Garbus’ voice in the hushed surroundings. But the most impressive thing is that no matter how off-the-wall Garbus’ experiments get, her songs never feel insular. She always lands on an anthemic melody, making these songs sound exciting and universal.
Even if you look past the provocative music (something admittedly hard to do for the first few listens), w h o k i l l offers even more in its words. Starting with the excellent opener, “My Country,” where she examines first-world guilt (“When they have nothing, why do you have something?”), it’s clear that Garbus has more on her mind than just good times. “Es-So” addresses body image issues, and “Riotriot” hints at erupting violence while she imagines coming on to a police officer. But it isn’t all politics, and she often gets personal as on the revealing sex fantasy “Powa” and the intimate lullaby “Wooly Wolly Gong.” Throughout the album she presents herself as both strong and vulnerable—in a word, human—so it’s fitting that the record closes with “Killa” where she lays out her insecurities even as she declares herself to be “a new kind of woman, I’m a don’t-take-shit-from-you kind of woman.” The closest thing that comes to mind when listening to w h o k i l l is M.I.A.’s Kala, another frantic, intelligent record with globally minded influences. While that record was full of dancehall club bangers, here the songs are danceable but not meant for the dancefloor, per se. It may make her following a bit smaller than she—or this album—deserves, but so be it because it looks like Merrill Garbus just snuck up on everyone with one of the finest records of the year.