Tune-Yards may deal in cacophonous maximalism – ever-changing rhythms, antic, mutating vocals, drifting snippets of highly infectious melody – but you could never accuse them of mindless exuberance. The California duo’s last record, I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, was a self-eviscerating meditation on white privilege, while 2011’s Whokill discussed both structural inequality and disordered eating. On their fifth album, gender dysphoria, abortion rights and the Larkin-esque horrors of procreation bubble up through the sonic deluge. Yet Sketchy doesn’t feel like a protest album – as the title suggests, it doesn’t have the clarity for that. That can be frustrating: Homewrecker hints at a theme of insidious gentrification, but it’s mostly indecipherable. Elsewhere, however, it allows for exhilarating ambivalence: Sometime muddles through a relatably complex response to climate disaster over a blissful lover’s rock foundation.
Her longtime appropriation of black-originated musical styles is something frontwoman Merrill Garbus has interrogated over the years, but it is clearly a mode she’s sticking with; Sketchy also channels 80s R&B, Afrobeat, Minnie Riperton’s ethereal vocal gymnastics and, most often, 60s soul. Tune-Yards don’t use these sounds for easy appeal; their sweetness, fun and comfort is invariably complicated by dissonance and instability. At the same time, they do make all the dread, guilt and hand-wringing that bit more palatable. It’s a discomfiting, ambitious dynamic from a band attempting to balance social conscience with feelgood entertainment. Sketchy is not that perfect marriage of progressive political messaging and musical pleasure – an elusive holy grail, that, or a contradiction in terms? – but it is a daring, fascinating and frequently very enjoyable attempt to square the circle.