The creative trajectory of England’s Stephen Wilkinson, better known by his stage name Bibio, is a deceptively familiar one: the upstart producer balances a taste for experimentation and pop on his way towards increasing eclecticism. His early full-lengths, Fi in 2005 and Hand-Cranked a year later, gave acoustic textures and found sound an electronic pulse. Vignetting the Compost in 2009 edged into more dynamic and structured territory while retaining an affinity for atmospheric naturalism. The same year, Ambivalence Avenue and its undervalued B-side companion The Apple and the Tooth marked the stylistically abrupt addition of funk, Muzak, and Wilkinson’s low-key vocals into the mix. 2011’s Mind Bokeh dispersed his explorations further, especially on the Death From Above 1979-ish dance rocker “Take Off Your Shirt”. Now, with Silver Wilkinson, he seems to be reeling in his widely cast net and reversing his metronome to demonstrate in the exposed details his well-honed mastery over diverse styles.
What that mastery yields, though, is a strangely detached listen. The sound is rich with the carefully patterned interplay of organic and digital, human and inhuman, melodic and moody, and it sometimes produces an assertive splendor, as it does towards the middle, at which album singles “À tout à l’heure” and “You’ are conjoined by the lilting “Sycamore Silhouette”. But it’s just as often kind of listless. If Ambivalence Avenue and Mind Bokeh were scatterbrained stylistically, they also compensated by cohering tonally. Mind Bokeh especially sustained a consistent and stimulating sense of melancholy as it veered jarringly between laptop pop, arch soul, and psychedelic folk, as if conveying a story—or, at least, the intimations of one—through studied genre collage. Silver Wilkinson is a slicker effort, and yet plays similarly to Bibio’s earlier ambient efforts: almost willfully failing to grab our attention, it recedes happily and wispily into the background.
Wilkinson’s production bears the traces of many influences, but one of the most readily apparent, especially on Silver Wilkinson, is Boards of Canada. One of the Scottish pioneers’ principle innovations was to use synthetic textures to narrate a lived-in past—an about-face for electronic music, which whether bleak or exuberant had principally concerned itself with the future. Bibio’s best and most distinctive moments follow this lead. The 70’s after-school-special sound of Ambivalence Avenue, for example, was as sparse and muffled as it was chipper and sentimental, as if tirelessly trying to bridge the unbridgeable distance of time. Unlike the legions of producers in the two decades following Music Has a Right to Children who’ve reduced Boards of Canada’s sun-warped sound to empty retro signifiers, Wilkinson has managed to match their nostalgia with an aesthetic all his own. On Silver Wilkinson, however, he comes dangerously close to doing the reverse. “The First Daffodils”, “Wulf”, and “Mirroring All” are faceless pastorals. “Business Park” and “Look at Orion!” attempt similar ends in the grammar of techno, but noodle aimlessly at length with little lasting impact.
Be assured that Silver Wilkinson is no disaster. Like Warp labelmate Chris Clark, Wilkinson has proven himself as an artist well enough by now to merit good faith interest in his noble failures. Moreover, the album as a whole is often exceptionally pretty, and “Raincoat”, “À tout à l’heure” and “You” are among Bibio’s very best. Yet even “You”, with its perfectly clipped, J Dilla-indebted chipmunk soul, is lamentably affectless. In the age of chillwave and Instagram, one can’t necessarily fault Wilkinson for losing his taste for kitsch. But one hopes he needn’t lose his taste for feeling in the process.