Stephen Wilkinson has probably read it all. He’s seen the reviews, the summaries, the summations of his craft, and invariably, he’s seen his music referred to as everything from “folktronica” to “laptop pop” to goodness know what else. Under his Bibio moniker, Wilkinson has recorded six full-length efforts, all built around synth patterns and acoustic guitars that were lensed through through the perspective of ’70s and ’80s American pop music. At times, he comes across synth tones that are more The Price Is Right than DFA, but therein lies his charm: Wilkinson is unafraid to repurpose the cheesy into something grander, which is why you can draw a line to both Steely Dan and Neu! in terms of Bibio’s influences and in both cases you’d be absolutely dead on the money.
Yet something happened to Wilkinson in recent years: he’s grown increasingly confidant in his role as a consummate pop craftsman, moving away from the ambient textures of his early works to more full-fledged songs, often with him as vocalist. While 2011’s Mind Bokeh was in many ways his critical breakthrough, it was his stellar 2013 effort Silver Wilkinson that showed him upping his game considerably, creating full-realized pop songs with a command for flair that wasn’t immediately apparent on previous efforts, “À tout à l’heure” being arguably his finest (and most digestible) pop moment to date. Sure, his lyrics are as elliptical as can be, but when wrapped in the warm gauze of repurposed Muzak, it achieves something that borders on the profound. Although Bibio has been silent as of late save for a reissue campaign for his earliest efforts, A Mineral Love, his seventh full-length proper, doesn’t so much arrive as it does announce itself in bold fashion. Against all odds, A Mineral Love is simultaneously Bibio’s most accessible effort, his most daring set of songs to date, and, yes, his masterpiece.
Opening with the minor-key acoustic number “Petals”, Wilkinson sets the tone of the album with his trademark lyrical surrealism, rooted in nature-driven imagery while but not without letting listeners know that it’s not all sunshine and daybreak in Bibio’s world:
To see age in a flower
The dawns are speeding up
You know it’ll hurt you
Feel all of a sudden
Tired and teary-eyed
You knew it’d kill you
Yet as A Mineral Love unfolds, we discover the beating heart that rests within, perhaps realized no better than on the laid-back strummer “Raxeira”, a small character portrait that also summarizes Wilkinson’s aesthetic rather perfectly: “The way the firefly lights its fire / She wrote a song about it yesterday / The way the water turns to steam / She wrote a song about it yesterday.” This segues right into the jazz-affected guitar number “Town & Country”, which wears its yacht-credentials proudly on its sleeve and makes for one hell of a joyous pop moment. “You try to see that maybe everything’s a miracle,” Wilkinson croons with his voice multi-tracked in the background, “Without making you feel less about it.” Amen, brother.
A Mineral Love is a celebration of life’s miniature moments, mired in glorious minutiae, and by the time he adds a feather-light reggae vibe to a Dan-indebted sax hook on “Feeling”, you realize that it’s damn near impossible to resist Mineral‘s charms. Although this marks the first Bibio set where he rounds up a variety of guest vocalists (most notably in the form of Gotye, who spends “The Way You Talk” repeating the same line over and over again to curiously hypnotic effect), Wilkinson, producing for his own voice better than ever before, is still the star of the show. On “With the Thought of Us”, he wraps his words around a beat that can be traced directly back to the bedroom-bred Chicago house music scene of the ’80s (wait until that chorus hits and you immediately think about Sunset Records), and, amazingly, this doesn’t feel so much like a detour as it does a continuation of that grand Bibio sound, just as how the able Olivier Dayoul feature “Why So Serious”, with its “How Will I Know”-brand of ’80s synth-funk, feels absolutely at home in Mineral‘s celebratory context.
Of course, being a Bibio album, there are still a few standard tropes that come into play, ranging from the hammer-on exploration of “Saint Thomas” to the sepia-toned drum machine strummer “C’est La Vie” (whose chorus is wrapped up with a glorious sax hook) to the filtered finger-picked pastiche that is “Wren Trails”; all songs that could’ve fit onto Silver or Bokeh with ease but still sound great here. Yet it’s that closing number “Light Up the Sky”, with that heavy envelope filter and ascending synth patterns, that creates a cacophonous closer worthy of all that came before it, wrapped up in a simple chord progression but allowing Wilkinson to show off his production skills while creating something that is unlike anything we’ve ever heard from him before.
So despite all of the tags and quick summations Wilkinson has read of his work before, A Mineral Love stands apart in his discography ‘cos it’s not really a dance album nor is it an “indie-guitar workout” nor is it a jazz set nor is it a collection of underground pop classics, no. Instead, it’s all of these things, because when you get right down to it, it’s a Bibio album, existing in multiple genres while belonging to none of them. If one were to try and define it’s sound, you’d have to go no further than his own line on “Gasoline & Mirrors” to get that perfect summation: “Lookin’ like a butterfly / You lookin’ like petals in a hurricane wind”. That’s couplet is exactly A Mineral Love sounds like, and Bibio couldn’t have said it better himself.