Photo: Neil Krug

Bonobo: Migration

Migration does not so much change course from Bonobo's prior work as refine it to its artistic pinnacle.
Ninja Tune

Bonobo’s music exudes both skill and caution in equal parts. Simon Green has upped the dance component slightly to his music over the years since his downtempo debut Animal Magic was released in 2000, trafficking more heavily in four-on-the-floor beats without ever cresting entirely into bangers. His music never approaches anything remotely resembling bombast, but neither does it push the boundaries of minimalism; he is careful, it would seem, not to try the listener’s patience too much, but also wary of discarding restraint completely. The found sounds and acoustic instrumentation that Green sprinkles into the mix add an idiosyncratically tangible quality that helps his music stand out, but these rarely disrupt the exceedingly gentle palette that marks his work. The usual result is music that goes down smoothly, electronic music as easy listening, and yet the intricacy of his pieces can also not be denied.

Migration, Bonobo’s sixth studio album, carries all of the above hallmarks, their assets as well as their inherent limitations. It is nonetheless one of his finest works to date, weaving together lush strings, dance beats, and carefully curated guest spots to masterful effect. While still a largely pleasant album, it manages to go beyond mere calming sounds and to achieve an actual emotional depth not always found in music of this nature.

At first, such depth may not be immediately evident: the album opens with the title track “Migration”, a casually ambient piano-driven number aimed squarely at the heartstrings that nonetheless might be too pretty for its own good, painting only in pastels and fading a little too readily into the background. Green quickly corrects course on the Rhye-featuring “Break Apart”, however, a haunting piece that more aptly sets the tone for the rest of the album. “I should have heard your fear / Shame on me,” Michael Milosh sings over a melancholic harp line, instantly changing the tone of the record from faux-inspiration to a meditation on loss and personal failings. If “Migration” is sitting on the beach and thinking of how pretty the ocean looks, “Break Apart” is putting something precious in the water and watching as it slowly disappears into the waves.

Not coincidentally, Migration‘s best moments are those also featuring guest vocalists, which were clearly chosen with the utmost care and consideration. Perhaps excluding the Innov Gnawa-featuring “Bambro Koyo Ganda”, all the other guest spots feature ethereal, breathy performances that seem to materialize out of the air itself, adding as much to the texture and mood of the album as any of the samples or instrumentation. “Surface”, one of the more propulsive and melodic pieces here, features a stunning turn from Hundred Waters’ Nicole Miglis, whose characteristically haunted delivery uncannily echoes Milosh’s. Nick Murphy, formerly known as Chet Faker, provides a similarly affecting performance on “No Reason”, the album’s seven-minute emotional and thematic apex. Arriving near the end of the record, the track is the danciest piece on here, yet also one of its eeriest thanks in large part to Murphy’s mournful falsetto in the chorus.

“Break Apart”, “Surface”, and “No Reason” serve as checkpoints, stable locations through which the rest of the album weaves, helping to maintain the structure and unity of the overall work. Elsewhere, Migration twists and turns through a number of different moods, going entirely cerebral in some areas before returning to its emotional core. The lush, percussion-less “Second Sun”, which features almost entirely acoustic instrumentation, is an unexpected highlight for how distinct it is compared to Bonobo’s usual fare. Cinematic and affecting, the track could believably come from a modern classicist like Nico Muhly, and proves that Bonobo need not rely on guest vocalists to supply emotional heft. On the other end of the spectrum are harder-edged experimentations like “Grains”, featuring a murmured Pete Seeger sample that actually gets pretty irritating rather quickly. Still, one can’t accuse Green of making exclusively “pretty” or “easy” music at this point. “Outlier” is one of the more traditional Bonobo tracks on here, beginning as a peaceful downtempo number before morphing into something more robust and heavy-weighted, changing shape often enough to fully earn its eight-minute runtime.

Migration is one of Bonobo’s finest achievements to date, an impressive feat for a career that has spanned more than fifteen years. It does not so much change course from Simon Green’s prior work as refine it to its artistic pinnacle. Drawing upon an emotional richness as lent by the guest vocalists and the lush, diverse instrumentation, the album will provide a satisfying and nuanced listen for all those who wish to delve into it. It nonetheless remains a somewhat demure work that is careful to keep one foot in the door of the coffee shop ethos; at its least successful moments, the album fashions itself as wallpaper, whereas its most successful prove difficult to ignore. At its best, Migration pushes up against if not quite transgresses the boundaries of a genre that holds tranquility in too high a currency, managing at times to be totally arresting in spite of such limitations.

RATING 7 / 10