Aaron Jerome of SBTRKT, wearing a mask designed to look ritually tribal.

SBTRKT # Wonder Where We Land

Just pushed play again on SBTRKT’s new album, Wonder Where We Land. And I realized through my headphones, for the first time, that near the end of track two I was hearing somebody do mouth percussion. Full-on beatboxing. Which is my least favorite thing in music. “Mouth” and “percussion” is the worst two-word combination; in my world it ranks below “reggaeton party”, “jazz vocalist”, and “TMNT 2”.

(Sorry to my a cappella-loving, beatboxing friends. Rockapella ruined that stuff for the rest of us.)

But here’s the thing. I’d listened to this track a dozen times, and like I said, never noticed that would-be atrocity. And here’s why: I’m too busy feeling every ribosome in my body go slack-jawed at this album.

Take a listen to that second track. (A caution for sensitive-eared listeners: there’s some very strong language.)

[spotify http://open.spotify.com/track/1SQYnNI7TlgzrN9i61Kpox]

 

I mean, I don’t know. I guess SBTRKT was memorable enough to me a couple years ago from Pitchfork articles about Aaron Jerome, who’s the central face of the project. Or he would be the face, if he weren’t hidden behind those masks that make him resemble a fertility doll. But I just sort of grouped him culturally with deadmau5, assumed he was too derivative (oh no, now I sound like a Pitchfork article), and moved on.

Then, a couple weeks ago, came the release of Wonder Where We Land. And, full disclosure—while I’ve recently been pretty good at listening to brand-new releases, this one slipped under my radar for a week or so.

When I did finally see that saturated red cover—the sexy Terminator 2 hand holding up a diminutive, stark black, masked feline—I thought maybe there was a chunk of the narrative I’d been missing. Maybe this guy wasn’t out to rule the world of EDM. As a matter of fact, with the title, the cover art, the dreamy chorale of the first track, this sounded like vulnerability. Questions without answers, and who could know where we’ll be when we find them?

Mr. Jerome strikes me now as the kind of guy you want to hand a big musical palette, then just walk away for two or three years. When you come back you’ll find he’s built something physical from the sounds. A train, a zoo, a second sun for our solar system maybe.

What’s great is, the listener recognizes what Jerome’s made, but there are weird limbs and lobes that put into question the nature of each creation. Where there ought to be a dining car, you find something like a town square celebration. Where you expect a sphere of radiant plasma, there’s also a lightbulb factory. Self-aggrandizing raps become a darkroom, developing complicated photos of a disappointing world around us, and inside us (see “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.”).

SBTRKT at Musica Festival in Sydney

SBTRKT at Musica Festival, Sydney | Photo: Karatyshov

And like a lot of producer-artist projects these days, Wonder Where We Land walks a line between the studio’s playfulness and its isolation. SBTRKT really hits stride where he feels unencumbered in experimentations, in the joy of sound on top of sound. But among his exuberant race for everything aural—church chimes, Graceland-era Paul Simon bass—I sense there’s a part of the guy that’s left crying on the playground. And I could be really, really wrong here. But there’s an emptiness throughout the album that seems to hint at a lot of late nights alone in large, well decorated, dimly lit studios.

Of course, frequently on Wonder Where We Land SBTRKT collaborates with vocalists. But the music is best when not a slave to rhymes and the human voice. The rap on “Higher” is, rhythmically and tonally, as droning as the high hat’s background sixteenth notes. (Literally: they’re the same rhythm, and the pitch almost doesn’t change.) Don’t get me wrong—that’s actually a cool feat in itself, given the emotion imposed on the listener by that repetition. But throughout the track, the instrumentation feels subservient to the words, and I want more of Jerome’s unhindered compositional style, dangit! I like it!

(“Temporary View” also feels like sonic compromise, as does the three-track stretch consisting of “Everybody Knows”, “Problem (Solved)”, and “If It Happens”. Rather than a centerpiece for the album, they strike me as a valley. They’re nice sounds, and well produced to be sure. But here SBTRKT deals mostly in contemporary conventions, and safely dodges any distraction from lead vocals. I’d like to see the guy continue to experiment with lush, more wildly imaginative arrangements in this section as on other tracks.)

Where SBTRKT uses voices to greatest advantage is on tracks like “Look Away”. Caroline Polachek performs these hypnotic, almost mystical sentence fragments—interrupted questions about a love affair’s tragic history, which perhaps left the lover hanging as much as these chopped phrases do to us. The scarcity they create, and the way I feel her voice almost staring me in the eyes, it’s enough to transport me to very dark times in very dark rooms, when any thrill could never be enough to satisfy desire. And that singing works in exquisite conjunction—not competition—with the track’s dizzying reversed-piano parts and panning percussion.

I almost expect Laura Palmer to walk out from behind a red curtain at any moment. Questions without answers.

[spotify http://open.spotify.com/track/0v6aKq2lN4Wtco95OKV5W1]

 

So we come back to wondering. The album refrains from postulating about the future, only recognizes the questions and haltingly chooses to sit with them. Will I be alone? Will I be myself? Where do we land?

And by staying out of the future, SBTRKT places himself firmly in the present. For better or worse, when creating rich, new soundscapes or approaching R&B pop, this collection gives the listener an excellent snapshot of where we are today: midleap, midair, the ground disappeared beneath us. SBTRKT might be asking if there’s anything left to land on at all.

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