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Bibio plays it safe on ‘A Mineral Love’

| Monday, April 4, 2016

Bibio_WebEric Richelsen | The Observer

From the start of his career, multi-instrumentalist Stephen Wilkinson (“Bibio”) has been leading his fans down a melodious rabbit hole directed by perpetual innovation in Wilkinson’s genre of expertise: alternative folk. The exploratory nature of his discography, however, is not as meandering as it is intentional, and his creative mantra of “folk, and …” is hardly as gimmicky as its premise would have you expect. Over a decade’s worth of releases, Wilkinson has welded traditional acoustic sounds with oneiric electronic probing, with the strong influence of trip-hop, ambient, funk and indie rock music painting his releases. Finally, his creative product — both musical and visual — is a gift of gratitude to the natural world, perhaps the single most important driving force of his art.

This has been most palpable in the latest arc of his output, since the aural petrichor of the 2013 project “Silver Wilkinson” described the rural England of Wilkinson’s formative years in 2013, supplemented by its companion listen, “The Green EP,” released the following year. But given the sharp stylistic turns that Bibio’s discography has thrived on since the artist signed to Warp Records in 2009 for the game-changing “Ambivalence Avenue” — Wilkinson’s magnum opus that came, mind you, only months after the more creatively conservative “Vignetting the Compost” – I defend my expectation that on his latest release,“A Mineral Love,” Bibio would explore yet new thematic ground.

Unfortunately, I was mistaken.

Admittedly, on the whole “A Mineral Love” is not a disappointment. As always, Wilkinson’s instrumental prowess carries the album effortlessly through a series of wholly unobjectionable tracks. The album kicks off on the right foot with the amphibian bokeh of opener “Petals” and the woozy atmosphere of the title track, the latter exemplary of the best that Bibio’s brand of funk-folk arrangements have to offer and a highlight of the entire album. On the back half of the LP, while “Wren Tails” represents a flawless return to form, “Light up the Sky” is perhaps the album’s most pleasant surprise, a finisher that is one of Bibio’s most jamming tracks yet.

While Wilkinson plays it safe throughout the LP overall, there are a few stylistic shifts that are worth noting. For one, the warmth exuded on many of the tracks here — “Raxeira” in particular — is a relatively atypical yet welcome variation of mood on an otherwise risk-free album; in many ways, “A Mineral Love” is the summer day that follows the cool twilight of “Silver Wilkinson.”

But perhaps most surprising was the presence of collaborating artists on “A Mineral Love,” an odd move for an artist as self-contained as Bibio. Though I was originally apprehensive, fearing that these artists’ contributions would intrude on Bibio’s natural momentum rather than complement it, the results are positive in most cases. “The Way You Talk (feautring Gotye)” is brief, but one of the album’s strongest tracks; “Gasoline & Mirrors (featuring Wax Stag)” is also very compelling, yet simultaneously does not seem to be anything Bibio could not have accomplished on his own.

That said, it is quite jarring to hear a voice other than Wilkinson’s calm tone on “Why So Serious? (featuring Oliver St. Louis).” But perhaps it is the track’s French house sensibilities that are most disorienting, along with the deep house vibes that precede it on “With the Thought of Us.” Of course, this is not the first time that Bibio flirts with house music. On “Silver Wilkinson,” the twin tracks “Look at Orion!” and “Business Park” are an inspired change in pace for the album that still successfully fleshed out its dreamy mood with their oblique but seamless panache; while here folk acoustics and house instrumentals are married in “both … and” fashion, on “A Mineral Love” the relationship is markedly more “either … or,” to the great detriment of the album’s pace.

In all, while many of the tracks on “A Mineral Love” are great when taken by themselves, they do not strongly build towards a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. For this reason, this latest LP is easily the least thematically cohesive album of Bibio’s discography in the artist’s Warp Records run, and, as a result, probably the least impressive as well. However, it is still impressive, given how high Bibio has set the bar for himself — now the question remains whether he will ever be able to raise it higher still.

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