Merrill Garbus is torn between success and stagnation, her country and its hypocrisies, nostalgia and change. In the three years since her last album, w h o k i l l, the Oakland-based songwriter and vocal acrobat has topped the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop poll and toured arenas with Arcade Fire, all while trying to maintain her brash, avant-garde sensibilities. Nikki Nack is the result of these warring emotions and priorities, with Garbus railing against the world while simultaneously celebrating its fluorescent beauty.
Dichotomies like these can be the recipe for muddy concept albums, but Garbus and bassist Nate Brenner avoid that pitfall by sticking to what they do best musically: chopped, clattering percussion loops; sophisticated, bluesy vocal melodies; walls of harmonies that jar and swirl; and spare funk basslines that make thrilling sense of it all. Perhaps nothing possesses the dualities of Garbus’s state of mind more than the album’s first single, “Water Fountain,” an irresistible, manic playground chant of a song, its beat shaped from a Waits-ian junk heap of claps and clangs and Brenner’s punchy bass, with the gusto in Garbus’s voice doing the rest. When the chorus rolls in, it sounds like a nursery rhyme, but then the first verse begins: “Nothing feels like dying like the drying of my skin and bones.” There’s no water in the water fountain, and that’s not just a catchy turn of phrase. This is a song about a failed public works system and a gleeful sing-along. Shades of gray aren’t usually this neon.
Garbus continues to develop as a singer, her voice full of nuance and elasticity. Opener “Find a New Way” is a classic Tune-Yards track in many ways, with eccentric harpsichord snippets coloring frenetic drum-machine syncopation. But it’s a turning point as well, because Garbus spends as much time on a delicate, lilting melody as she does her typical booms and howls. By the bridge, she’s reached a seamless crescendo: “When I see you changing/It makes me think that I can change too.” On the late-album highlight “Wait for a Minute,” she sounds exquisitely assured, toeing the line between her regular and falsetto voices like a 1980s R&B lothario.
If there’s a weak spot on the album, it’s “Why Do We Dine on the Tots?,” a spoken-word novelty about cannibal grandparents that’s a little too goofy to withstand repeated listens. Yet somehow it fits right in, as beneath all of Garbus’s loony voice acting is a chilling commentary on how people fear change. Rarely does an album consider life’s eternal struggles in quite this way: searching for answers with its eyes wide open, and silly string in its hair.