However hard it is to avoid, most of us project meaning onto records. I do, you do, the artist wants us to. Perhaps the mere art, if we’re to anoint this thus, of reviewing music requires it. Otherwise, we may be limited to scores out of ten and “yeah, no, maybe”. That may be preferable of course but Migration by Bonobo positively begs you to look beyond the groove. Themes of light and shade, sadness and joy, family and solitude. stasis and migration – they’re all here, despite it being largely instrumental. This conundrum is the plus (and the minus) of paying attention to what the artist is trying to communicate rather than just whacking it on and seeing if it’s any good, of course.
Happily enough, this sixth long player by the Hampshire-born artist is actually pretty good. It’s certainly not the masterpiece that some have observed it to be but it quacks along in an interesting fashion. At times downtempo and ambient – there’s the thoughtful stuff for you – at times a far more wriggly affair. It’s complex and at times very unusual, as you’d expect from such a well-travelled and left field musician.
Through tracks like the emotive ‘Second Sun‘ though, there’s a feeling, a quite oppressive feeling, of such seriousness and wow, it’s just a touch annoying. It’s almost too well produced, too perfect. Whilst that may seem a somewhat unfair criticism to make – it makes a change from some of the ramshackle dross we all stumble across – there’s a certain uptightness about it all. The grooves may be superficially loose and louche but they’re put together with such precision the effect is a little draining. The vocal on ‘Surface‘ (featuring Nicole Miglis) loops about appealingly, seemingly designed to make you feel…well, what? Listless and with an itch of the feet, as per the album title? Well, that it does do…
Far more successful are cuts with more guttural dancefloor intent. Indeed we’re straight into ‘Bambro Koyo Ganda‘ (featuring Innov Gnawa) with its bassy growl. Oddly enough, for one of simpler tracks, it has some of the greatest appeal. Clacking percussion, straight up groove, a classic get the club moving track. It’s pared back in relative terms and all the better for it.
Perhaps it’s a case of wanting an album to be something it is not – hardly its fault. Migration is not an edgy, crunching album. It’s soundtrack-like, slick and touches many bases with an LA gloss reflecting the current location of our emigre; it will be massive. Bonobo is deservedly huge, globally, and this record will only enhance that. One just feels that the most successful moments are when he stops trying so hard. We all love a good journey through a record and how it means this, that and the other. Just, in this case, the more affecting songs are the ones where one doesn’t feel the weight of significance or overwhelming beauty on one’s shoulders. That is not always the case, but, it is here. There is more soul in tracks which, on first listen, may appear to have less.
Ninja Tune and offshoots have been on a rare run of form these past 12 months. To these ears, superficially more simple efforts like the excellent offerings by Jay Daniel and the superlative Hieroglyphic Being have been more successful.
Migration is released on 13th January 2017 through Ninja Tune.