The closing and 10th track off Bibio’s Sleep on the Wing, “Watching Thus, The Heron Is All Pool”, is arguably the new record’s finest moment. Like some of the tracks on Ribbons, from 2019, the song wraps itself in the adornments of mid-20th century British folk – the acoustic guitar and accompanying strings do magical little flights of fancy – and Stephen Wilkinson imbues the music with a wondrous pastoral quality. The piece runs less than three minutes without so much as a reprise, the bridges forever lurching forward toward the horizon line, kind of like Nick Drake covering a song off Clogs’ The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton.
Wilkinson hasn’t always been fixated on such modes of effusive beauty. Though he can wax chameleonic like the best of them, most of his work of note – I’m thinking prominently of 2009’s excellent Ambivalence Avenue – has mixed folksy, finger-picked ruminations a la Fahey or Kottke with found sounds, avant-garde construction and the more conventional trappings of electronica and IDM. In short, he’s best, maybe most transfixing, when he’s mixing colors, not painting portraits. When I listened to Bibio’s debut, Fi, some 15 years ago, I was enthralled by its mix of high-minded academic thinking with recording methods and presentation that framed themselves as more decidedly lo-fi. (Wilkinson, for what it’s worth, studied sonic arts at Middlesex University in London.) In this, he seemed a student both of Jim O’Rourke and Lou Barlow – an enticing conceit.
Much of the work on Sleep on the Wing, by comparison, is pretty conventional. The found sounds and alternate recording methods still exist, though to a lesser and less dangerous degree. And what replaces the unexpected flourishes is more folksy fare – the dreamy ballad “Oakmoss”, say, which fleshes out its branches with fiddle, or the ascending scales of “Awpockes”. Wilkinson still taps into unexpected forms and formats – he flashes Tortoise influences on the knotted acoustic post-rock-isms of the addictive “A Couple Swim”, and creates wonderful little guitar and piano angularities on “Lightspout”.
But what listeners also are treated to is “Miss Blennerhassett”, which lines plain-on-its-face classical guitar noodling with hand-claps. (The title is a reference to the 1987 film
Withnail & I.) Yes, there’s “Crocus”, with its subdued and burbling bits of electronica. But some tracks try to get by on the warmth of the acoustic guitar alone. While Wilkinson is an accomplished player, it’s his interesting juxtaposition of forms and fidelities that remains the most harrowing part of his signature sound.
That is isn’t to say the record is dull. It’s a pretty engaging little study in acoustic sweetness. Songs like the title track, which opens the record, are overflowing with hummable melodies, and the string work, in particular, truly resonates on the achingly sweet “The Milkyway Over Ratlinghope”. But those hungry for the peculiar charms of “Petals”, the track from
A Mineral Love where syrupy vocals were laid over reverse-loop tape, the hiss of strings, and cooing synths, will be left wanting. Yes, it’s a pretty good record, and the songs will linger with you after you’ve stopped spinning the record – it’s just that Wilkinson is capable of so much more.