“If home is where the heart is begging, then my home is inside you,” sings tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus on the track “You Yes You” from the new album “WHOKILL.” This line, though ostensibly innocuous, functions as a perfect demonstration of how this album develops its unsettling power. A clever variation on an idiom, the phrase slips into the ears lightly and harmlessly. But as its echo dies away, dark undertones emerge, revealing a desperate, lascivious, almost murderous sentiment that lasts long after the saccharine voice that sings it.
“WHOKILL” works within the paradigm of strict and recognizable pop forms, complete with verses, choruses, driving beats, and incessantly repeating motifs. Garbus and her crew reveal the hidden potential of these hackneyed forms by injecting them with a pungent dose of dissonant, noisy, and violent elements. What results is a quirky and unpredictable album that sounds clean and expertly crafted as it plumbs the shadows of its unsettling world.
A heavy, ringing tom beat complemented by unbalanced, harmonizing bird calls inaugurates the album on the track “My Country,” a wild and jarringly frenetic tune that equates American inequality with romantic rejection. Despite a repetitive form, new nuances and timbres arise with every turn, like the lush synths that explode half-way through or the unsynchronized saxophones that add confusion and discomfort to the dissolving outro. Even with such unremitting unpredictability, Garbus’ vocals take front and center as one of the most riotous and impressive elements in the mix. Within one song, she leaps, she screams, she coos, she whispers, she serenades, she harmonizes with herself, and she crams a tremendous number of syllables into her rapid-fire lines. “My Country” represents zeal taken several steps too far, and this serves as a perfect setting for an ironic portrayal of U.S. opportunism.
Lyrical irony abounds as the album cartwheels from subject to subject. The bouncy “Es-So” sets a simultaneously infectious and eerie groove while featuring a repeated voiceover of Garbus muttering, “I gotta do right if my body’s tight, right?” in her best Valley Girl impression. The creeping dissonance and nihilistic synths that brood within the cracks of this tune’s tonality suggest the emptiness and evil behind this character’s bougie façade, a sentiment further reflected in the lyrics: “Sometimes I’ve got the jungle under my skin / Draw back the ribbon, stick a fucking fork in / Bathe it all in a wave of disgust / I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” Such irony becomes heavy-handed on tracks like “Gangsta” and, later, “Killa.” “Gangsta” delivers the violent boasts of a suburban warlord, complete with ambulance sounds and the cringe-worthy refrain, “Never move to my hood / ’Cause danger is crawling out the wood,” while “Killa” features a hackneyed attempt at all-too-easy yuppie criticism.
Despite these more inane elements, the music maintains its madcap curiosity throughout a multiplicity of different moods and tempos, like the ominous tip-toe of “Riotriot,” the 50s bubblegum bounce of “Doorstep,” and the Portishead-like lullaby of “Wolly Wolly Gong.” “Powa” is a distinct highlight, a moderate and spare pop ballad that finds Garbus at her most soulful. Consisting of nothing but bass, drums, guitar, and some very light electronic nuances, this song is a brief respite from the violent world surrounding it. Periodic chasms of reverb suggest some lurking nihilism, but Garbus repeatedly fends it off with a warm melodic sensibility.
“Bizness,” the sole single from “WHOKILL,” is an indie pop gem, based on a colorful vocal sample that spreads across its 4.5 minutes like a shimmering rainbow. The moderate, drumstick-click drive that guides the tune along its standard verse-chorus structure gradually snowballs with new voices, until a veritable symphony of percussion, bass, guitars, and horns accompanies Garbus’ wild vocals. She sounds unhinged, delivering screeches and growls through cut-up samples and odd electronic filters, and hurriedly pleading, “Don’t take my life away / Don’t take my life away.” “Bizness” is a perfect demonstration of what tUnE-yArDs executes so well. Garbus’ ability to incorporate messy and unexpected features into traditional pop structures allows her to create music that transcends the lo-fi and the hi-fi by mashing the best of both.
Garbus’ universe is one of lurking monsters, battleground neighborhoods, weight-conscious 20-somethings, and a ubiquitous sense of approaching madness. “For your sleep is guard against the cold and hard / A soft shroud of safety in a world gone wrong,” she sings. “WHOKILL” can be an unsettling, unpleasant, and quite frightening experience. However, the music is so consistently inventive and engaging that it invites countless repeat listens. Unease has rarely sounded this good.