Looping wizard Merrill Garbus returns to her manic, soothing, ugly-beautiful, abrasive, smooth, and sharp brand of sonic expression with tUnE-yArDs‘ third album Nikki Nack. The first thing that strikes me about this album as different from its predecessors is that it is so BIG while using, relatively, so little. Bird-Brains and Whokill, both fantastic albums in their own right, now seem like they were only touching upon a cool idea. It seems, in hindsight, as though Merrill had envisioned a style that existed in no place outside of her mind and that Bird-Brains and Whokill were studies – a means of fleshing out the concept. They were sketches of some form, with rough edges and expressive mark making, that abandoned traditional rules, only hinting at the real idea. Nikki Nack confidently stands as the embodiment of that vision and plants a flag in uncharted sonic space, declaring it for tUnE-yArDs.
This album boasts a more evolved sense of space and texture than its forerunners. On “Real Thing” the minimal instrumentation rotates with Merrill’s slowly layered harmonies to create an inconstant pace that can disorient and leave your head spinning. This is a running theme in the album. There are individual scenes within songs whose transitions seem disjoint or odd at first, such as in “Look Around” or “Hey Life,” but are then layered or bridged masterfully in ways that seem foreign to our conventional conceptions of structure. The album reminds me a bit of Son Lux in this respect.
I feel as though there is a sense of urgency to the music on this record, conveyed by Merrill’s erratically strung together intensely punctuated lyrics. Her range on the album is masterful. She manages to get so much from one line, shifting from sweet as honey to harsh and grating, from forceful thuds to angelically soft textures – all seamlessly. Her precision is almost unnerving.
Nikki Nack is out now via 4ad.