Bonobo 2022
Photo: Courtesy of Ninja Tune via Bandcamp

Bonobo Lapses Into Watered-Down Chillout Music on ‘Fragments’

Bonobo’s Fragments represents a rare step back from one of the 21st century’s leading electronic luminaries. It doesn’t bring enough new ideas.

Ninja Tune
14 January 2022

At this point, Bonobo has nothing to prove. The name Simon Green may not ring a bell with many casual listeners, but his Bonobo moniker is known worldwide. The 45-year-old DJ and producer has earned Grammy nominations, headlined festivals, and landed a number-one album on the US Billboard dance charts. Yet accolades aside, Bonobo’s music is as rich, as subtle, and as awe-inspiring as anyone else in the past two decades of electronic music. He is that rare talent, a studio guru with critical and commercial success.

There’s triumphant energy to his latest album, Fragments, out via Ninja Tune. It’s louder and more upbeat than Bonobo classics like Days to Come and Black Sands, which were decidedly jazzier and more downtempo. It’s also more accessible and tends to shy away from the Afro-inflected and world-music influences of Green’s 2000s work.

No song epitomizes Fragments‘ triumphant energy more than “Otomo”, featuring O’Flynn on vocals. It’s the album’s most majestic track and also its clear highlight, led by pounding kick drums, laser-like synths, and samples of a massive Bulgarian choir. The choral vocals give the song a churchy, almost cathedral-esque vibe, like a marriage of rave and religion. Everything about “Otomo” is larger than life, from its epic bass-drop to the way its echoey synth lead hovers precariously over the mix. It’s impossible not to imagine this one being blasted at summer festivals—even if summer is a long way away.

Unfortunately, most of Fragments doesn’t live up to the beauty of “Otomo”. All too often, this LP sounds like watered-down chillout music. “From You” is a generic R&B number with a forgettable trap groove and sleepy, Auto-Tuned vocals from Joji. “Shadows” gets off to a promising start, with its sinister one-note bass and subdued groove, but Jordan Rakei‘s singing is almost hilariously unmelodic, blandly repeating, “Save me, save me, save me from the unknown” throughout the song.

The album also features a frustrating amount of musical interludes that feel like they are purely there to fill space between the poppier tracks. String arrangements like “Polyghost” and “Elysian” are plucky, aimless, and devoid of subtlety. “Counterpart” seems like it’s building into a club stomper but never does—the vocals are too obscured by the mix and the occasional harp flourishes feel thrown in just to offset the song’s lackluster groove.

Thankfully, you can always count on Bonobo to throw in a beautifully warped sample or two, as he does on “Age of Phase”, which samples Nostalgia 77’s “Quiet Dawn”. Here, the baby-voiced vocals are cut up into oblivion yet still remain brilliantly catchy, overriding one of the album’s most infectious grooves. It’s reminiscent of Green’s sampling on “Grain”, from Migrations, which features a similarly chopped-up rendition of Pete Seeger’s “One Grain of Sand”.

Still, a few ingeniously twisted samples aside, Fragments sounds too much like a victory lap to feel like a compelling artistic statement. There’s nothing wrong with being accessible, but Fragments just doesn’t bring enough new ideas to the table. The album represents a rare step back from one of the 21st century’s leading electronic luminaries.

RATING 5 / 10