SBTRKT: Wonder Where We Land

source: SBTRKT

Text Khalid Azizuddin

JUICE has long nurtured suspicion that SBTRKT is a reanimated member of an ancient cybernetically-enhanced civilisation. All evidence suggests it:

1)     The distillation of bass music into its base components for his (its?) eponymous debut was precise, unsentimental.  In his airtight production, each snare and synth traced bold patterns, high up in the mix. It spoke of hours in the wind tunnel, every bit of drag eliminated. Only algorithms are that neat.
2)     Anonymity is just a tool to get the hype going but once you have people’s attention, the mask comes off. Even Burial gave in eventually. That much goodwill is pointless to waste. It is highly unlikely this man watches Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Android or not, it is possible that a modicum of pressure was felt when he sat down to write his sophomore effort. SBTRKT managed the enviable task of bringing gritty, beat-based music closer to the mainstream while keeping most of its credibility. Peer closely and you can see its influence in the clean lines of the sparse, ethereal r’n’b that has popped up in his absence. Annoyingly, the disdain for vowels also caught on. It is therefore quite heartening to see SBTRKT upping his game by disposing of whole words in Wonder Where We Land (surely there needs to be a ‘will’ there). The little work he’s done post-debut have also spoken of refinement and change. The 2014 EP (sensibly titled Transitions) and handful of tracks released have all been multi-layered set pieces with a frantic energy last seen in his earlier Young Turks releases.

First single ‘New Dorp, New York’ predated the album by two months and bears no resemblance to the material before it. It pairs a fat descending bass line with Ezra Koenig at his most lyrically obtuse, elements widely regarded as being already sufficient for a Pitchfork-style 8.0 score. As on Transitions, production is maximalist with ricocheting drums, dissonant clanging, muted clicks countering and furthering the melody. Koenig’s flamboyant register ekes out rhythms even in the confines of the newscaster monotony he adopts in the verse. Here and for most of the album, SBTRKT displays an amplified ability to fabricate a landscape conducive to his guests. It is true that his debut propelled the then unknowns (Jessie Ware, Sampha, Little Dragon) to their present day near-ubiquity, but their roles then were narrow and linear: girls were aloof temptresses and boys (Sampha) was a weepy mess, hoping against hope.

Things are much more nuanced now. On ‘Look Away’, the vocals of lovely pink-cheeked Caroline Polachek (singer of twee iPod Nano flogger ‘Bruises’) are contorted into grotesque shapes amid washes of Middle Eastern inflected synths, driving the cautionary lyrics home. Slightly less sublime is ‘Voices in My Head’, which proves to be less than the sum of its parts. Without the obvious geometry of trap to root to, ASAP Ferg loses his footing in the nebulous and syncopated chaos of SBTRKT’s production. Far better is ‘Higher’ with previously unknown Raury. Stutter-fire ‘hats draw out the precise diction in the youngster’s slouched drawl and there is no ambiguity here. Instead of a celestial ascension, Raury launches himself skyward with one foot firmly planted in the bowed backs of adversaries. Most impressive is ‘Gon Stay’, which attempts the near insurmountable challenge of rebranding Sampha as an insouciant, swaggering funkmaster. This is the man whose shuddering husk sounds like the byproduct of a constant, eternal heartbreak, whose inclusion on our iPod has dashed any future hopes for healthy, graceful breakups.

With a tightly coiled, mercurial bass line, SBTRKT nearly succeeds, and perhaps that is enough. As before, time is crucial for a judgment.

LISTEN TO: ‘Gon Stay’

1. Day 1
2. Wonder Where We Land (feat. Sampha)
3. Lantern
4. Higher (feat. Raury)
5. Day 5
6. Look Away (feat. Caroline Polachek)
7. Osea (feat. Koreless)
8. Temporary View (feat. Sampha)
9. New Dorp. New York (feat. Ezra Koenig)
10. Everybody Knows
11. Problem (Solved) (feat. Jessie Ware)
12. If It Happens (feat. Sampha)
13. Gon Stay (feat. Sampha)
14. The Light (feat. Denai Moore)
15. Voices in My Head (feat. ASAP Ferg)