w h o k i l l
By Lindsay Zoladz | 4 May 2011
I had just turned on w h o k i l l—not an unusual scenario, considering that I’ve spent most mornings the past month trying and failing to think of a record I’d rather be listening to—when I read last Tuesday morning that Poly Styrene, the lead singer of X-Ray Spex, had died. I turned it down but left it on, Merrill Garbus softly yelping as I scrolled through the Internet’s preliminary tributes to Poly, an artist who taught me and generations of listeners what gleeful, unbridled expressions of feminine individuality sound like. When I read a sentence that Kathleen Hanna wrote on her blog—“Poly lit the way for me as a female singer who wanted to sing about ideas”—something about the album I was listening to clicked. Because that’s indeed what Poly Styrene did on Germ Free Adolescents (1978) (her charming, spoken-word preambles reading off like thesis statements for the songs they preceded: “I am a cliché”), and what Garbus does on w h o k i l l: she makes ideology visceral. She breathes life into identity politics, resulting in profoundly smart music that feels less like a chalkboard lesson and more like an aerobic workout. Some great records aim for the brain, others the heart, and others still just want to see you move. w h o k i l l is the kind of record that achieves all of these things simultaneously, with a deceptive ease that makes you forget how rarely that actually happens.
The last tUnE-yArDs album did not exactly prepare us for this. BiRd-BrAiNs (2009) was a unique and occasionally striking lo-fi affair. Recorded on Garbus’s own computer, it incorporated the sonic textures of her everyday life: outdoor ambience, kids saying cute things (she was working as a nanny at the time), and pots-and-pans percussion. In the foreground were layers of tape loops, an aggressively strummed ukulele, and Garbus’s shapeshifter of a voice, whose lyrics struck the perfect chord of sweet and slightly squirmy melancholy (“What if my own skin makes my skin crawl / What if my own flesh is suburban sprawl?”). Still, even if you liked BiRd-BrAiNs, it was the kind of album that you recommended to someone only after the necessary preface, “This isn’t for everyone, but…” w h o k i l l, on the other hand, is for everyone who’s got a pulse. It may well go down as the most pleasant musical surprise in recent memory that Merrill Garbus—vaguely mustachioed; unabashed feminist; facepaint enthusiast; former puppeteer—has overnight become something of an underground superstar.
w h o k i l l teems with the chatter of a mind exhilaratingly alive. Garbus’s voice exerts remarkable control, shifting and morphing mid-line so that it sounds like she’s in constant conversation with herself. On “My Country,” it gives off the effect of a stream-of-conscious dribble of poetry (“We cannot all have it / Now why is there juice dripping under your chin? / When you have something, why do they have nothing?”). On “Bizness” it takes the form of the proverbial devil on the shoulder (“If you just press your fingers underneath my skin / C’mon do it! / C’mon do it!“). Taken as a whole, w h o k i l l is an exploration of a brain in a constant state of anxious motion—a portrait of an artist slicing her head open and leaving its electric-colored nerve endings to dance wildly on display.
And this crosscut shows that Garbus has two things on the brain: (what else) sex and violence—which, w h o k i l l suggests, are maybe not so different at all. “I’ve tried so hard to be a peaceful, loving woman / I believed that love and understanding were the way,” she sings on the doo-wop inspired “Doorstep,” but seems like that strategy didn’t work out so well; its sha-na-na’s are quickly undercut with an act of violence: “Policeman shot my baby as he crossed over my doorstep.” Elsewhere, Garbus oscillates between roles of metaphorical victim and oppressor. On “Bizness” she begs a lover, “Don’t take my life away /Don’t take my life away”; later on the record she relishes the power of being “a new kind of killer.” Halfway through the album’s centerpiece “Riotriot,” a song that unfolds like a sinister, plinking music box tune, Garbus’s unadorned voice wails maybe the record’s most telling line, “There is a freedom in violence I don’t understand / And that I’ve never felt before.” The lyric comes out of her mouth with such power that upends the rest of the song, its pieces left tumbling in chaos.
w h o k i l l‘s most obvious triumph—especially for listeners used to hearing Garbus in muffled lo-fi—is how good it sounds. Garbus certainly doesn’t need the artificial gauze of lo-fi that some artists now paint on in attempts to heighten their sense of eccentricity; nobody else sounds like her right now, and the record’s crisp, articulate sound makes that all the more clear. w h o k i l l is a fearlessly lucid statement of vision, which makes her irrepressible weirdness that much more powerful and blunt.
It’s not for a lack of love that we sat on writing about this album until now, but it has been pretty thrilling to see it released to such overwhelming acclaim and universal attention. tUnE-yArDs is the type of artist that makes me glad we’re living in a post-sellout moment for independent music: a time when DIY musicians are no longer married to aesthetic limitations, and a time when music that would once be dismissed as niche or avant-garde is able to find the large audience that it deserves. Something about Garbus’s fierce commitment to exploring the depths of her own strange mind reminds me of something filmmaker Chantal Akerman once said in an interview, “I haven’t tried to find a compromise between myself and others. I have thought that the more particular I am, the more I address the general.” By this measure, w h o k i l l is probably the most inviting album you’ll hear this year.