Simon “Bonobo” Green’s latest album marks 20 years since he signed to Ninja Tune. That’s half the lifespan of an actual bonobo ape. Throughout that time, the LA-based producer has carved a niche between middle-of-the-road chill-out and dancefloor stormers. Placed geographically at a club, that probably plonks him somewhere in the cloakroom.
‘Fragments’ is billed as Green’s most “emotionally intense” work to date, but “emotion” is a word that means many different things – nail-chomping terror, a confused disgust, the boredom of a supermarket shopping trip. Certainly, his 2017 album ‘Migration’ felt like his most hopeful work yet, its guest vocals way more resonant than a meander down the frozen fish aisle. No surprise then that guests also feature on ‘Fragments’, its gentle clubbiness akin to a desaturated Bicep. What’s different here is the orchestration – more on that later.
The first section of ‘Fragments’ is a masterclass in dynamics. The tremulous strings of opener ‘Polyghost’ lead into ‘Shadows’, where the soulful vocals of Loyle Carner collaborator Jordan Rakei are a rich counterbalance for bubbly percussion. With ‘Rosewood’, Green cranks up the energy, slicing a vocal sample against a chunky Detroit synth rhythm. All of which leads us to ‘Otomo’, a first-half highlight that completes the quadruple whammy. This piece, possibly named after ‘Akira’ creator Katsuhiro Otomo, spirals heavenwards courtesy of an all-dominating Bulgarian choir sample. Already a live favourite at Bonobo gigs, the track benefits from stunning Jon Hopkins-style sonic snakes and ladders, courtesy of co-producer and Ninja Tune pal O’Flynn. All hail that laser snare and those swooping cut-off filters. So sparky.
Then suddenly, with a touch of cheesy vinyl crackle, we’re away from the dancefloor, treading the embers of ‘Late Night Tales’ head-nodders. ‘Tides’, with Chicago vocalist Jamila Woods, is lounge-smooth, a thoughtful interlude as nostalgic strings make way for tinkling instrumental, ‘Elysian’. And yes, nostalgia is an emotion. At times, the violins stretch into slightly overwrought higher frequencies that evoke old soundtracks of black and white melodramas or, indeed, the choir sample earlier in the album.
Which brings us to the orchestration. The strings on ‘Migration’ were saved for subtle washes on tracks such as the lush ‘Second Sun’. Five years later, and the violins are so upfront, you’re likely to get bowed in the eye. This is due in no small part to expert arrangements by composer/Brainfeeder regular Miguel Atwood-Ferguson and harpist Lara Somogyi, whose instrument feels perfect for these fluffy, Four Tet-ish rhythms.
The orchestral theme points to a Bonobo who knows exactly what he’s about. Pleasing instrumentation designed for live performance – a gateway drug to club culture that will offend no one. The vinyl crackle, by the way, was no mistake. This first half lands so neatly, it’s clear the album is designed for a vinyl flip halfway through. Green has aimed this squarely at the resurgent mainstream vinyl market – the resurrection of the coffee table album and the so-called “50-quid man”. None of this is a criticism, by the way. It’s nice to see.
The second half locks into the heaviest beats. ‘Closer’ has an ethereal build into euphoric open hi-hats, and the tin-can clatter of ‘Age Of Phase’ proves once again that Green is a master of the tasty vocal slice, the percussion snarling deliciously towards the end. The harp sprinkles happiness over the otherwise melancholy ‘Counterpart’, an emotion emphasised by a butter-smooth acid motif. Is eating butter an emotion? Then there’s ‘Sapien’, its yawning, delicately detuned melody contrasting with playful, jungle-lite drum antics. Bonobo is on tour throughout 2022 – all of this is going to be a real treat.
The rhythmic drama does not go uninterrupted. Punctuating the beat-juggling is ballad ‘From You’, where lo-fi crooner Joji insists he’s “falling for you”, while soul singer Kadhja Bonet provides a perfect front for the radio-friendly jam of ‘Day By Day’. There is one gripe about ‘Fragments’. Instead of the soulful sidesteps, I would absolutely love to stay on that dancefloor. Start to finish, boogieing under the bright lights, feeling that sweat drip from the ceiling. Now that’s an emotion, right there.
But the slower soul stuff has to stay because Bonobo knows his (super)market – the A-list playlist. And it’s really well done. He says an inspiration for the album was “crowds, movement and people connecting with each other”. As long as he’s in that zone, the club cloakroom is going to get pretty packed. That aside, this middle-aged ape has indeed orchestrated something glorious and listenable with strings and strings for miles. It’s been… emotional.