Picture the scene: It’s been a hard week at the office, a standard occurrence for the high-flying exec. As you place your crisp jacket over your crisp suit, you feel a few crisp cocktails are in order, so you head downtown to the ultimate casual after-work location. What’s that playing in the background? That’s right: jazz lounge. Call it Cafe Continental, Buddha Bar, Meditative Bistro, Rumination Boulangerie — in every guise, it serves the same purpose. It’s background music — music to accompany light, flirtatious conversation and mild-mannered dancing, music that will never grab you by the throat and assert itself as music in its own right.
Bonobo has often been swept under this carpet of jazz-lounge boredom, and at times justifiably so. Simon Green plugs the same downtempo rhythms, the same beefy bass, and the same casual vocal styles that have been a fixture of many a dubiously dull compilation primed for the Starbucks market. This was especially apparent in elements of previous album Days To Come, which often lacked the punch to persuade you to put down your Mojito and get up from your beanbag. For an artist trying to make records rather than compilation tracks and singles, this dismissal must be frustrating.
Perhaps this is why Bonobo’s Black Sands sounds like an indignant reply to his fiercest critics. While still trying to maintain the intricate character of previous works, Green is forcing his work to the foreground. Immediately after the meandering prelude, we are lurched into the bassline-driven “Kiara,” foraging through new Bonobo creativity with flourishing arpeggios and harshly sliced vocals. “Eyesdown” flickers with a charming two-step beat, creatively weaving the words of Andreya Triana, whose soothing and chalky vocal cords have previously leant themselves to Flying Lotus’ “Tea Leaf Dancers” and Mr. Scruff’s “Hold On.” Like a burnished Burial track, half sentences slip through pulsating bass in a way that refuses to be ignored. Similarly, “1009” displays a newly realized sound of glitching synths that cuts through the ambience, again hauling it from the clutches of the cocktail bar. When Green succeeds, he really damn well succeeds.
Which brings me to the rest of the record. Green is evidently incapable of avoiding his previous vices, indulging in the comfort of — well, comfort. Snuggly songs such as “Kong” and “El Toro” envelop you in pleasing textures where every aspect of the song has had its edge smoothed by safe production. We are fed the similar sounds of silky saxophone, chiming organ, and plucked acoustic guitar, none of which are displeasing, but none of which are exciting either. Such songs fail to brace the ideas Green has promisingly displayed, and he once again tosses us back to his comfort zone of the pondering patisserie jazz lounge we’ve all heard before.
Green is not who we thought he was. With Black Sands, he’s proven himself to be a skilled multi-instrumentalist who knows how to construct beautiful, arresting music with enough layers of complexity to hold interest for multiple listens. Nevertheless, if he wishes to avoid being the listening choice for those who don’t actually want to listen, he’s not quite succeeded yet.