Bonobo’s fourth album The North Borders isn’t exactly a force of nature, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone. British-born, New York-based producer Simon Green has maintained an aesthetic as modest as his profile for over a decade. Never incognizant of trends, he’s also never held himself hostage to them, integrating the tendencies of producer-driven music into his melodic soundscaping seamlessly and without airs. His basic style, meanwhile, has remained a variation on hook-based instrumental hip-hop distinct enough in its often melancholic, sometimes sinister, never subversive vibe to mark something of a sonic signature. Although he’s gained a strong following as a live performer, his music evokes the hours following a gig and its attendant priorities: grooves over songs, moods over meanings, and textures over structures.
The North Borders shows no intention of breaking that pattern. In 2013, the trends it integrates tend towards glitch, dubby soul, and the lingering ghost of “folktronica”. Polyrhythms crackle and pop in the front as sensible, layered grooves pulsate behind them. Hooks are introduced and rephrased rather than developed. The vocals—credited to Szjerdene, Grey Reverend, and Erykah Badu, or otherwise anonymous—convey pathos enlisted as texture rather than narration, and are accordingly often cut, looped, and pushed to the back of the mix. As the album’s highest profile collaboration, Badu’s on “Heaven for the Sinner” would presumably stand out as a rare song, if not the centerpiece. But it isn’t really either. On the contrary, her Afrofuturist mystic charisma and warm, just-shy-of-sultry timbre melt seamlessly into a diffuse two-step that never quite gels into a song. In other words, “Heaven for the Sinner” is emblematic of The North Borders as a whole.
As a whole might be the album’s intended format. Its track-to-track flow suggests as much. The samurai soundtrack woodwinds of “First Fires” persist into “Emkay”, receding into the muffled distance to accommodate a moody saxophone. Then “Cirrus” builds a house beat from bells, chimes, and tuning forks, yielding without disappearing to “Heaven for the Sinner”, and returning revitalized for the reverbed drum racket of “Sapphire”. “Jets” kicks it up a few clicks into a chorus of stammering harps and vinyl static that evokes the Bonobo of Animal Magic ten years ago. “Towers”, “Don’t Wait”, and “Know You?” and “Ten Tigers”, “Transits”, and “Pieces” close out the album in paired trilogies of potboiler brass, percussion bricolage, and fake-out crescendos thereof. Between them lies “Antennas”, the most compelling track of the album, built from The North Borders’ most compelling sample, a funk flute Herbie Mann would be proud of. It doesn’t stray from the general formula of surging strings and stereophonic clicks and snaps, but its various voices speak to each other where they simply talk at or over each other in the tracks that precede and follow. If no climax is ultimately forthcoming, “Antennas” at least makes the most convincing case on The North Borders for a groove that could continue indefinitely without objection.
None of this should imply an offensive listen; quite the opposite. If anything, Bonobo continues on his latest to forgo the kind of fashionable displeasure that might attract readier critical favor. But if The North Borders sustains attention with deceptive simplicity, that deception is itself deceptive. Green’s intricate arrangements—melodic but never quite melodies—cue ears to listen closely, but rewards are scant; as evasive as they can be, these tracks aren’t for chinstrokers. Perhaps the album will prove to have long-term potential, but for now, The North Borders might be too modest for its own good.