SBTRKT leads a disparate cast of collaborators down a rabbit hole of mismatched beats and psychotic melodies on his second LP.
High-concept collaborative albums rarely work. Drawing consistency out of a roster of totally dissimilar musicians is the task of an experienced artistic director, someone who can take on a role of leadership and find some abstract harmony with a vast range of artistic skills and temperaments. It isn’t the task of a young producer like SBTRKT, who only has one album and an assortment of remixes and EPs under his belt that, while joint efforts, are also appropriately single-minded and reserved. On Wonder Where We Land, the producer’s second full-length album, SBTRKT lets his ambition and overconfidence lead him and a class of wildly disparate collaborators into a world of foggy unknowns, resulting in a work just as fascinating and disjointed as one would expect.
The universe of the album is revealed first via the short introduction “Day 1”, where static, gliding synths gradually drift into consciousness like an approaching thunderstorm, shrouding the rest of the album in a looming darkness. Suddenly the turbulence cuts out and we’re in the deep, soft bass of Sampha-featured “Wonder Where We Land”, with SBTRKT cueing in random, sporadic noises and overtones, keeping the song off-center and unpredictable.
The various percussive clicks of the beat and off-the-wall vocal interjections (such as an arbitrary two-bar beatbox fill that comes from nowhere and never comes back) turn the otherwise straightforward song into a frenzied cacophony that is difficult to understand or follow. The music doesn’t build off itself so much as it disintegrates into and out of shape, creating formless, irregular pop. As the stilted beat of “Wonder Where We Land” shuffles in, Sampha softly croons, “impermanence is so permanently with me”, providing one of the album’s few tangible thematic statements: the only thing that’s inevitable is uncertainty.
These songs develop illogically and tangentially, veering and twisting around the guest musicians at the center, seemingly vying to make something out of the mess. This is SBTRKT’s distorted world, and as such, the producer is rarely supportive of the vocalists’ tendencies and is sometimes outwardly combative with them, forcing them to follow him down his rabbit hole of mismatched beats and psychotic melodies. Some can keep up, some cannot. SBTRKT lets Raury free on “Higher”, leaving the vocalist to apply himself to the somber hip-hop backdrop without much interference, while the producer leads A$AP Ferg astray on the awkward “Voices in My Head”, where the rapper’s strangled flow struggles against the loose swing groove of the beat.
Equally jarring is the tonal and stylistic contrast between songs. Raury’s serious-faced, confrontational honesty on “Higher” is at odds with Ezra Koenig’s playful wit on “NEW DORP. NEW YORK”, and both fight against Caroline Polachek’s eerie theatrics on “Look Away”. The battle against coherency is always interesting to behold on Wonder Where We Land, even when the music becomes uncomfortably confused, but that tension is the album’s defining quality nonetheless.
SBTRKT seems aware of the inconsistencies. The producer premiered a whopping six of the album’s tracks before release, perhaps understanding that they work just as well or better alone as they do as part of the whole. It’s not a graceful effort, or an incredibly fulfilling one. While there’s a lot to love on this album, it’s undisciplined charm reaches a point of diminishing returns that’s hard to come back from.
SBTRKT has discovered where unbridled creativity crosses over into recklessly unrestrained whimsy, and he’ll be a better artist for it. Ambition is a necessary component of success for the up-and-coming producer who’s competing with a sea of unassuming copycats and clones, but he’s found that it is possible to go too far. Even the album’s title implies that SBTRKT is flying by the seat of his pants, unsure of his direction through the whole affair. That’s admirable in some respects, but every work of art needs to know where it’s going, lest it just drift away.