You know that someone has reached stardom level when you’re in the middle of your write-up about a new album and you shy away from referring to a conversation you once had with the artist because it might just look way too much like you’re bragging about it. Like those clickbait posts on Facebook asking who the most famous person was that you ever talked to. Guaranteed to get plenty of posts that scream for an “oh wow” reaction.
That was 21 years ago anyway. Not the same planet. Just look at the differences. First Bonobo album and this one. Progressed from Downbeat to something people label as Deep House or Tech House today, mostly for a lack of a better categorization. The most dreaded aspect of creating a new entry on Discogs. And the artwork. A friendly, sunny collage back then, almost abstract photography this time. The early years’ Bonobo logo there, not a single word on the sleeve here. Oh, and the stunning amount of special editions on vinyl – more than half a dozen different versions varying in color of vinyl, enhancement of sleeve and added art prints. In case you wonder: I chose the Rough Trade version – 500 copies, die-cut sleeve, red marbled vinyl, one signed art print.
At the turn of the Millennium it was just Simon Green in his studio creating a slightly shy instrumental album – something that “Fragments” really isn’t. Not that vocalists are a new thing to a Bonobo album, but it’s one thing if you invite Andreya Triana for a track or two and a completely different thing when every second title on the album is officially featuring great vocal talent. Triana is there too – sampled from her Bonobo-produced first album.
But of course most of these things aren’t new to you. If you know Bonobo, you don’t just know one album. He’s the kind of artist that you follow. The kind of artist that is able to keep a metamorphosis going for more than two decades while keeping his fan base happy and loyal. At least if you ran across his work early on. I have no idea if this also works backwards, if a young Bonobo fan that got interested because some smart DJ played “Bambro Koyo Ganda” would discover the back catalogue and be just as much in awe about “Terrapin”.
Not surprisingly, “Fragments” received excellent reviews just about everywhere, Pitchfork being more or less the only ones who decided to have a bad day and roast it. Somewhere between the lines of that review you could sense that the author probably thinks that one Bonobo album might have been okay while the others were all dull easy listening. Not necessarily a fair trial.
I can see where some people might be inclined to just shrug and say “yeah, nice.” There are moments when this album slips into Pop and R&B sweetness, when it pleases just that little bit too much. Some years a go, a slower piece was a slower piece, now it’s a ballad. The first two minutes, sort of an intro (not sure if an album like this needs one), are an example. A little too much syrup for my taste.
And I can see that some people just think this is all so immensely likable. That’s the problem with some people, isn’t it? They don’t like stuff that is likable. Nice is the sister of dull, they say, and often enough exchange “dull” with more descriptive vocabulary. I am shaking my head asking how can you not like Jordan Rakei? How can you not like how he sings? And they’d be saying yeah yeah no. Too nice, too charming, too generic, too “inoffensive” – as if being offensive was a desirable quality.
“Shadows”, the track that Bonobo shares with Rakei, doesn’t do anything revolutionary, it has a nice and even flow, nothing edgy about it. You might even call its elements generic with its strings and keys, its arpeggios and its nicely rolling groove. But that makes about as much sense as calling a Jazz trio generic for using nothing but drums and bass and piano. Bottom line is – Green and Rakei make each other shine and it’s a really pretty song.
It’s quite obvious on “Fragments” that Simon Green liked what happened when he published “Migration” a few years ago. His sound has adapted to the kinds of places that he and his bandmates play, and he has learned what moves the people in front of the stage. He has learned from his audience. They like his slightly less punchy danceability and his un-agressive approach to rhythm.
Several of the tracks on this album pick up where the aforementioned “Bambro Koyo Ganda” left off. Similar pace, similar mood, continuing and expanding the vibe. “Rosewood” starts out like a softer and warmer take on the Songstress version of “See Line Woman”, “Sapien” ends in wildly broken beats that remind me of Green’s short-lived side project Barakas, and on “Otomo” he does a very effective and clever job of transferring the “Bambro” concept from Africa to Eastern Europe with Bulgarian bagpipes and a huge choir. This is definitely going to get people moving this summer, and smiling too.
It’s obvious that countless gigs as a DJ have changed the choreography of an uptempo Bonobo track. Big emotional breaks, equally big and fat re-entries, that mix of warmth and electronics, it really works well. Even the slower tracks benefit from his gradual transition to a kind of music that appears more electronic than in the first years of his career – but somehow doesn’t feel like it is. I prefer when the slower tracks aren’t turned into ballads, when they remain instrumental. But that’s just me, never liked ballads and probably never will, so I’m not going to like “From You” or the way the featured vocalist Joji sings, but hey, you can’t love every song on an album, not even on a Bonobo album.
Sometimes I miss the outstanding musicianship and instrumental excellence of a track like “Black Sands” – but that’s hard to avoid as I still think it’s his finest moment. In a way, instruments on this album are used rather than played, it’s more about sparking something than about sparkling. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, and Simon Green is extremely good at this. He’s got his own way of doing things, he’s got his own balance. Yes, he aims to please, he does want people to feel good, this much is obvious, but I find it very hard to hold it against him.
No, this is not risky, it’s not really innovative, it’s enjoyable and you can dance to it without breaking too much of a sweat, it’s stuff that works on beaches, festivals and garden parties, particular around sunset – in short, all the happy days and happy places. Yes, some people find that objectionable. I don’t. Especially as this is an impeccably well produced album with plenty of quality material. Bonobo has arrived, and it’s in a pretty good place.
Release for review:
BONOBO – FRAGMENTS – NINJA TUNE – ZEN279RT