What are the enduring qualities of downtempo/chill music? An analytic approach necessitates this question, and it’s almost inescapable when listening to The North Borders. Simon Green (as Bonobo) presents the listener with an hour-long tapestry of lavishly crafted lounge beats that traverse an indulgent musical world — a world liberated, an existence free of concern, but still tied to the melancholic and the chilled.
The overall lush nature of the record lends itself to an immediate listening experience — each track, one after the other, invites one into its particular zone and groove, in an immersive manner. There’s a consummate blend of individual devices that converge seamlessly to lull one into a serene world of electro-bliss. With one noteworthy exception featuring Erykah Badu, a recurring instrumental relationship binds the whole creation together with consistency — multiple percussion tracks (each affected to summate some thick, sleek New Age electro-drumset), cooled synths, a myriad of samples, and gratifying downbeat releases, hallmarks of instrumental “beat” music.
On “Cirrus,” arguably the highlight of The North Borders, Bonobo assembles the aforementioned elements in a sequenced and mechanical manner typical of more mild-tempered approach, but the adverse nature of the components, organic and lively, exhibits a colorful world not bound to the systematic norms of the downtempo world of dance music. Bells, marimba, and miniature cymbals amalgamate in something beyond what its constituents would seem possible of achieving. It’s not simply a case of synergy, because each part is distinguishable and noticeable, and yet that visibility in construction adds to the overall assembly. Like some ever-changing machine, you can see the incredible beast shifting and how that impacts upon the entire occurrence, from top to bottom. Meanwhile, “Heaven for the Sinner” sees Bonobo adeptly handling his collaboration with Badu. Apart from the insanely groovy shifting-meter (12/8 to 3/4 with no problems), what’s mesmerizing about this track is the combination of Badu’s performance and how Bonobo manipulates it in his soundworld: neither artist dominates the effort, but both manage to inject considerable amounts of style and wholesome musical gestures into another brilliant track.
However, outside these absorbing compositions, the enduring nature of the work comes into question. The overall album is in line with Bonobo’s other releases, and markedly so. But this may present itself as a problem to some listeners: for all the clean, renewed, and organic sounds combined on the album, it lacks an immediate freshness. While there’s an amazingly broad range of timbres used effectively, with a disposition toward familiarity in harps and tuned percussion, the textures created with these instrumental pieces aren’t a great deal different from track to track. Pair this with a repetition of form on a large scale across the majority of grooves, and The North Borders begins to feel somewhat lackluster. Tracks like “Jets” and “Antenna” do escape this trap of repetition, but other tracks surrounding these tend to fade to something rather of the norm, something typical. So the question becomes: can this music be evaluated beyond a the 10th or 20th listen?
The North Borders easily goes beyond redeeming itself as an album consistent and chill, but it’s also unobtrusive and endearing, for occasionally it falls short of the immediacy apparent on its standout tracks. It’s certainly a well-constructed and realized musical creation; it just lacks the advanced conceptual depth that Green’s notable contemporaries manage to subtly inject into their compositions — those musicians, the Four Tets and Caribous of the modern world who are so adept at manipulating the very nature of creations simplistic at base level, who have underlying and complex sub-structures, who can be traced back to the foundations of progressive electronic music. The technical proficiency is here, abundant in every tweaked sample, percussive element, or instrumental melody, but it’s simply a question of how deep one can go into these miniature pieces, these tightly engineered gears with fulfillment failing to rear its head. By no means is The North Borders sterile, but there isn’t a notably invigorating spark either — at least not of an obtuse or intense gesture. The album just seems concerned with observing something beyond mere physicality in a chill experience.