Review: SBTRKT, Wonder Where We Land

What color are ocelots?
SBTRKT Wonder Where We Land

opinion byAUSTIN REED

The cover art to SBTRKT’s sophomore full-length Wonder Where We Land features the semi-anonymous producer’s signature African mask outfitting what I can only assume is…I don’t know…a black lab? Maybe a jungle cat? What color are ocelots?

Whatever. The point is: This ambiguous, African-tribal-mask-toting Dr. Seuss animal is resting submissively in the palm of a hand—a streamlined, textureless, iridescent blue hand. Of all the questions racing through my head regarding this image, (and believe me: There are a lot.) one seems to hold more weight than the others: Is the animal really small, or is the hand really large?

This, in a nutshell, is where we are with Aaron Jerome’s SBTRKT. The Young Turks virtuoso is by all accounts one of the most versatile, challenging and boundary-breaking artists signed to a label rife with versatile, challenging boundary breakers, so naturally, we have reduced his catalog to comprise one of two definitions. Either 1) he’s a mega-talented producer capable of predicting and thereby defining the future of electronic music, or 2) he’s a mega-talented producer who constructs platforms off of which a bevy of up-and-coming pop acts can swan dive. The former is considerably more appetizing than the latter from the standpoint of unique, progressive moves in the right direction for his own genre. But the latter asserts a currently inimitable authenticity into another genre, which is on an altogether different, typically undervalued plane of importance.

Let’s assume for a minute that there’s merit to all of this. The absurdity of the reduction isn’t up for discussion (though it probably should be), but the reduction itself is intriguing and thus begs for an objective look to be taken at SBTRKT’s scope of work.

Easier said than done, given the categorically dynamic arsenal Jerome has accrued over the past three years. His 2011 self-titled full-length, met with near-unanimous acclaim, was an absolute beast, boasting 12 genre-defining tracks, nine of them featuring guest spots from a slew of then-invisible, now-unavoidable pop music powerhouses (Jessie Ware, Sampha, Little Dragon, to name a few). It was a dreamy albeit saturated roster to accumulate for one record, which might explain why his next offering couldn’t have been any more contrasting of an affair.

Honestly, we probably should have talked more than we did about the Transitions EP. Stylistically, it crushed. It was lush and voluminous, and SBTRKT toyed with perplexing, degree-of-difficulty ideas as though he just lifted them out of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. By all accounts, Transitions was a think piece, but it was never so at the expense of enjoyment. Omitting vocals, contrary to the trend, was just one more weapon for Jerome to wield.

So on one hand, is it farfetched to consider why we’ve pigeonholed SBTRKT’s monolithic talent into just two schools of thought? Not really. But on the other hand, should that make us feel any better about being shortsighted?

I don’t know, and Wonder Where We Land, I can tell you right now, won’t help. It most certainly will, however, allow us a moment to breathe, because in headier ways than his full-length and in less complicated ways than Transitions, SBTRKT’s newest LP is really, really fun.

Here’s what I mean: Some of it is decidedly serious (“Problem Solved”—welcome back, Jessie Ware), while some of it is uplifting (“NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” featuring a never-craftier Ezra Koenig). Some of it is creepily thought provoking (“Voice In My Head”—A$AP Ferg going off in a way that might genuinely terrify me), while some of it is awe-inspiring (“Lantern”). Say what you want about Jerome’s ever-evolving sense of style, but one thing’s for certain: The guy isn’t without the ability to run the emotional gamut.

Perennial SBTRKT collaborator Sampha has never sounded better than he does on Wonder Where We Land. Much of his appeal on the self-titled full-length originated from his tender-footed tactic and raw approach. But here, Sampha sounds comfortable and confident, showcasing his vocal prowess rather than merely living with it. On the title track and on “Gon Stay,” Sampha’s performance requires unrushed, undistracted examination.

New to the mix is hip-hop high-promise Raury, dropping possibly one of most ridiculous series of verses of 2014 on “Higher.” Raury sounds like Drake on Zoloft, his lyrical glide and caress as smooth as that blue hand on the album cover. He also establishes an impressive vocal cadence on “Higher,” which SBTRKT cheekily deteriorates near the end, chopping the BPM in half and grinding every melodic stroke to a screeching halt.

Other notable guest spots aren’t much less impressive. Chairlift front-woman Caroline Polachek delivers considerably expansive range to “Look Away,” a track exposing SBTRKT’s predilection for more rampantly constructed melodic landscapes. Jessie Ware absolutely destroys on “Problem Solved,” an exercise in beautiful, minimalist R&B in the vein of “Street Thing”-era Aaliyah. And “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” holds up as one of the more intriguing tracks of the year, thanks in large part to Ezra Koenig’s stylish staccato and atmospheric sensibility.

So at this point, it would seem as though the debate over the mechanics of SBTRKT’s craft has been settled, right? Well, yes and no. The guest spots leave little to be desired—no question about it. But then SBTRKT goes all SBTRKT on us.

As mentioned above, “Lantern,” is one of those out-of-nowhere brain crushers blessed with a rhythmic technique that can assume several identities at once. On more than two occasions, it effortlessly jumps from dubstep to drum and bass without warning, offering an adrenaline injection to club-ready opportunists with attention deficit disorder. “Voices In My Head,” features a searing spot from A$AP Ferg, but it’s the only song on the album where the guest vocals sort of take a backseat to the intricacy of the production. That’s not to say that Ferg’s verses are subpar—on any other track, it would dominate—but Jerome goes dark on this one, using slowed synths and skittering bass lines to paint a landscape so bleak, it’s hard not to forget that there are other elements at play. And “Everybody Knows,” is a vicious slow-build syncopation clinic that discourses Jerome’s expertise in how factors affect formula. Upbeat castanets and major-key piano hammers quickly and eagerly morph into an amble as polished as it is woozy.

Possibly the clearest illustration of how muddy this argument has gotten can be found in “Temporary View,” the decided champion of Wonder Where We Land. Once again featuring a next-level Sampha at the helm, “Temporary View,” towers upward and surges forward, creating a sonic apex not even “NEW DORP.” can ascend. Marrying Sampha’s sating, syrupy croon with an absurdly intricate, sweeping backbeat, “Temporary View,” illustrates just exactly how much SBTRKT knows about the sandbox in which he’s playing. His moves and countermoves here are as precise and premeditated as ever they have been. “Wildfire,” was uproariously good; “Temporary View,” is better by an absurd margin.

So, where do we stand now? Is the animal small, or is the hand large? Is SBTRKT a jump-off producer for others or a forward-facing producer for himself? In either case, the answer is actually a more curated question: How much more to the story is there? With Wonder Where We Land, we get nowhere closer to understanding the implications of such a question, but that is decidedly the best answer we could have hoped for. B