REVIEW: Bonobo – Fragments

There is a lot to like about Fragments, but something is holding me back from truly loving it.

From the opening track’s gentle harp sounds, I was coaxed into the album. It was all very familiar, very Bonobesque, Bonobian, whatever the correct eponym may be.

Familiarity doesn’t last the length (and it is arguably two or three tracks too long) of the album. While I applaud Simon for doing new things and experimenting with new sounds, and while I would not wish to crassly dismiss the unfamiliar, it is these moments that are, for me at least, the less successful points of the album. Let’s take ‘From You’ as an example. The guest vocals of Joji (who appears to be huge without me ever having noticed – he’s a YouTuber, and I’m too old) are frankly quite dull. This current trend for this style of lazy and generic RnB vocal, like a pound shop Drake, really grates on me and it feels out of place here. Anyway I’m not here to review Joji and to further destroy my Peter Pan-like reputation, so let’s get back to Bonobo.

I joke of course, but the Joji appearance is emblematic of the more, for want of a better word, commercial influences that let Fragments down,

There are plenty of strong vocals elsewhere. The unmistakable sound of Jordan Rakei just over two minutes into the album is a far more impressive coup than the appearance of Joji. But these showboating collaborations and features are a bad sign for me. They often arrive at a certain point in an artist’s career after they have achieved a certain level of success, promising much but delivering little. Having said that, Fragments is served well by Jordan here with a catchy refrain of ‘save me, save me from the unknown’ and successfully marries Bonobo’s jazz-tinged, post trip-hop chillout sound with the more uptempo, club-oriented elements of his more recent work. Jamila Woods, similarly, delivers a stunning chorus on ‘Tides’.

Sticking with vocals for a minute – in an interesting closing of a circle, there is a sample of an Andreya Triana vocal on ‘Closer’. Andreya featured heavily on Bonobo’s 2010 album, and arguably his masterpiece, Black Sands. This subtle nod is a nice touch and produces one of the most moving moments on the album. But once again, I end up comparing the rest of the album to these moments, and often find it falling short. 

So it is to the upbeat moments on Fragments where we find Bonobo working at his best. He doesn’t tread the fine line between relaxing and boring carefully enough. We’ve all been chilling the fuck out for the best part of two years and we’re not quite ready to give up on our dream of going back to a club just yet, so give us a little more energy. ‘Age of Phase’, ‘Counterpart’ and ‘Sapien’ will lift spirits, and ‘Rosewood’ and ‘Otomo’ hit the highs well. But once again it is the track ‘Closer’, with its slowed down two-step beat, that reaches the very tallest peak. Indeed, it neatly sums up the album. The efforts towards staying modern and current by bringing in callow contributors just don’t do it for me. It is when he reaches back with a fresh eye and ear that we get to hear the best Bonobo has to offer right now.

In the end then, Fragments, is a good but ultimately frustrating album. I keep hitting play in the hope that it will truly grab me, but it’s yet to happen more than in short bursts. One to revisit at a later date. I sincerely hope I look back and say I got all wrong, but I’m not convinced I will.

Words by James Spearing

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