Review Summary: Bonobo feels necessary again.
There’s something I’ve been meaning to formally declare for a while now. I really love Bonobo. Well, Bonobo’s music
. From end to end, there’s not been a Bonobo album that I’ve not liked, and there are a couple of albums of his that I’d rank as small masterpieces (Black Sands
being THE magnum opus). That being said, if you were to listen to Green’s back catalogue from end to end, starting with Dial ‘M’ for Monkey
all the way through The North Borders
, you’d find precious little to differentiate them. One of the biggest problems for artists as consistent as Bonobo is that, upon finding a template that works, it’s hard to break free. A few too many of Bonobo’s latter-day songs are structured the same way, all building to the inevitable Signature Moment. For Green, that signature is a wash of jazzy reed instruments. Just listen to the coda of “Towers” or “Kiara.” As this formula got further engrained into Green’s music, it cheapened the quality of his releases. After a bit, a new Bonobo release becomes a bit like getting groceries: you know you need
it, but you’re not expecting anything surprising or mind-blowing out of it. But I should have known something was up when the Flashlight
EP dropped. Now I know for sure. Migration
is different. For all the similarities it bears with prior Bonobo projects, there’s more than enough different here to mark it as a sea change, one that pleasantly upsets the formulas that Green’s music often hues towards.
But I’ll start with the similarities. Firstly, this is still a lush downtempo affair. Don’t expect Bonobo to bust out the trap beats or the earth-shattering future bass drops. It’s still plaintive as all hell, and the Jean-Luc Ponty/Dorothy Ashby vibes are still abundant. But that’s about it. In almost every other way, Bonobo reshapes and recontextualizes his signature sound. Most of this is done through subtraction. Migration
isn’t defined by its lush swooning strings or its knotting guitar lines in the way that The North Borders
was. Songs like the title track and “Break Apart” tend to simmer instead of scale, and the hypnotic grooves that these songs get into more closely recall Jon Hopkins
(who plays piano on “Migration”) than James Blake
That’s not to say that these songs are boring or uneventful. In fact, the opposite is true, as the tightly wound loops and arpeggios unwound into beautiful vistas that recall the album’s artwork. “Kerala,” “Bambro Koyo Ganda,” and “Outlier” are probably the most club-ready tracks Bonobo’s made in the better part of a decade, and their inclusion here lends the album a good amount of texture. And the use of algorithmic and other purely digital forms here gives the album an interesting inhumanity that plays up the beautiful humanity of Green’s samples and instrumental performances. The title track “Migration” is probably the best example of this, as Hopkins’ gorgeous improvisation runs up against Green’s algorithm and live triggering of samples.
Beyond the fancy new dynamics, there’s a lot to write home about in the guest appearances. Traditionally, Bonobo’s built entire albums around a single vocalist showing up a number of times (Szjerdene
turns up twice on The North Borders
, Andreya Triana
show up three times on Black Sands
and Days to Come
, respectively). This lend the albums the feeling of a collaborative effort moreso than a single artist’s single vision. On Migration
, Green flips the script again by bringing on a pretty eclectic range of artists for single-outing features. Rhye
’s Mike Milosh shows up to imbue “Break Apart” with a yearning fragility. Nick Murphy (formerly Chet Faker
) turns in what is probably his best recorded performance on the club anthem “No Reason,” while Moroccan artist Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer of Innov Gnawa lends “Bambro Koyo Ganda” an exotic edge.
The newfound minimalism and eclecticism of Migration
isn’t exactly polarizing, but it is the kind of artistic decision that has the potential to make or break albums. For some acts, stripping away the elements only brings light to the shaky foundation that the music is built on (just look at Skrillex
’s ill-advised “post-dubstep” excursion Leaving
), while for some it reinforces what made their music so compelling in the first place. For Bonobo, it’s the latter, and with Migration
, he’s made the perfunctory feel necessary again.