ALBUM REVIEW: Bonobo “Migration”

Migration – the sixth studio album from electronic mastermind Simon Green (aka Bonobo) has been met with mixed reviews. But what is interesting music, if not polarizing? Upon first sitting with the 12-song LP, it became instantly apparent to this reviewer that one should hear it in the dark. After hitting the lights, its lush arrangements had space enough to dance around at full capacity. And dance it did.

The title track, “Migration,” ushers us into a rich soundscape with dulcet piano. The keys are minimal yet seductive, much like the work of contemporary pianists Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. Weaving behind them is an atmospheric collage comprised of distant intonations and rolling snares. It is a song both familiar and impossible to grasp – and there is nothing more satisfying or frustrating for a music critic than to hear a landscape of sound that you don’t have the vocabulary to describe. Green has managed to summon all of this by song one.

“Break Apart” takes a slightly different direction, starting off with hissing tape and slowing things to a slur. Despite the delicate plucking of strings and eventual swell of horns, “Break Apart” is essentially an R&B song, with breathy vocals provided by L.A.’s Rhye. On “Outlier,” we swerve down another path – one with a far friendlier tempo for the club. The first dance track of the album, “Outlier” maintains a uniqueness that defies typical EDM formulae. Whether slow burners or techno pounders, Green’s songs act as sonic narratives that ripen and unfurl each minute. Bonobo’s frequent use of crescendo functions as a climax in these narratives.

“Grains” returns us to the slithering tempo Migration began with, making fine art of the vocoded vocal sample – in this case, the drawling non-sequiturs of Pete Seeger. The sluggish track exemplifies Green’s ability to sculpt enormous depth of sound with seemingly few frills.

While Green entrances with his otherworldly compositions on the first half of Migration, the record’s pure pop, vocal-centric second half is less intriguing. Bonobo’s collaboration with Nick Murphy (fka Chet Faker) on “No Reason” yields a pretty by-the-charts pop song, with Murphy’s voice taking the reigns and Green’s arrangements in the back of the saddle. It should be the other way around. The same dilemma can be found on “Surface,” a Sade-lite number featuring Nicole Miglis. These would be fine as stand-alone singles, but within the record as a whole they dilute Green’s exceptional talent as an electronic composer.

As much as it pains a writer to say: words seem to cheapen the boundless expression Green can convey with his music. Fortunately, Migration weighs heavier on the wordless side – allowing the mind to float in its various intricacies, shades, and tides.

Migration is out now on Ninja Tune Records.