The first work released by Bonobo (aka Simon Green) since The North Borders in 2013, Migration sets off in an entirely different direction from its predecessor. It’s clear that he’s approached the project with new goals in mind, focusing on “the study of people and spaces,” as he puts it. The album certainly doesn’t follow a linear story, instead sprawling outwards and revealing unexpected samples, moods and feelings. There’s some stumbling in places where the sounds don’t quite mesh, a few of the songs coast by without leaving any lasting impression but a handful of tunes capture the listener wholeheartedly and take them to exactly where Green wants them to go.
With “Grains”, “Ontario” and “Figures” the problem is clear. They’re lackluster, unable to carry you along or inspire any sort of afterthought. “Grains”, in particular, feels like half of a song; in it, Green makes use of strings and eerie vocals but fails to anchor them, leaving the tune wandering aimlessly before an all-too-abrupt ending. With “Figures”, there’s a similar problem of wanting to understand the message or idea, but being unable to follow along. It’s sad in a way that evokes boredom, not misery. Compare this to “Second Sun”, which also clearly reflects a more somber attitude, but in this case more effectively. The xylophone patterns and slow guitar riffs knit together perfectly with the overarching harp rhythm to slow breathing and water the eyes.
Green takes some of the simplest sounds – guitar and piano chords, repeated harp melodies, echoes of sand shakers – and weaves them together in the most effective way for the album’s best tunes. Admittedly, I find his strongest work comes with songs that bring passion and energy. “Outlier”, for example, presents an instrumental smorgasbord as it starts off but slowly and beautifully melts into a more electronic-minded track. The seamless transition feels like Green is back in London mixing for a boiler room set, while still painting audial scenes of distant landscapes. He takes this further with (arguably) the album’s pinnacle track, “Bambro Koyo Ganda”. Heady vocals from Morocco-based group Innov Gnawa enchant and entice as Green subtly builds tension before dropping into a more familiar dancefloor groove. Also worth mentioning is “Kerala”, a sweet, sticky harp-driven melody whose music video feels like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll.
Overall, the album is the work of an artist content with the fundamentals (if one could call it that) and seeking to explore, to push the boundaries and test different sounds. For this reason, much of it lacks a clear and precise focus; some of the songs simply fail to leave an impact. This is to be expected – Green wants to experiment with different moods, feelings and some dissonance within the project is the natural result. On the flip side, there are more than a handful of tunes where this crazy new direction turns out some euphoric beats and alluring rhythms. When speaking of the album, Bonobo talks about ideas of home and identity; how places can influence moods and thoughts which can, in turn, be shared with others. The sampler he uses introduces sounds that he had personally recorded while travelling: the gentle rumbling of an tumble dryer in Atlanta, a Hong Kong elevator, rainfall in Seattle. It’s elements like these that show Green’s desire to convey to the listener exactly what he sees, feels and hears and when they work, it’s an artist at his absolute peak.