Now that U.K. bass music has hit a saturation point, artists the Internet hastily labeled with the “post-dubstep” tag back in 2010 have been able to escape the imaginary restraints of their so-called scene. For James Blake, this meant transforming into the electro Jeff Buckley; for Burial, finally being listened to by people other than depressed British raver kids; and for Aaron Jerome and his latest album as SBTRKT, Wonder Where We Land, it means trading in Drake-on-ecstasy club bangers for bugged-out trip-hop productions occasionally interrupted by misguided attempts at R&B slow-burners.
That’s not to say Wonder Where We Land is a major departure from 2011’s SBTRKT. The grainy drum textures, reverberating synthesizers, and jazzy minor-key chord progressions signify that these songs couldn’t be anybody’s other than Jerome’s. When longtime collaborators Sampha and Jessie Ware jump on tracks, they provide familiar frameworks in which SBTRKT can show off new tricks, like the percussive chirping arpeggios during the chorus of “Temporary View” or the jerky non-traditional song structure of the short but sweet “Problem (Solved).”
However, Jerome’s attempts at applying his signature sound to languid ballads often fall short. The aimless Auto-Tuned wailing of Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek on “Look Away” is obscured by the track’s cavernous synthesizers to the point where it sounds formless. And on the album’s title track, squelchy bass noises and unnecessary echo effects strip Wonder Where We Land of any momentum before it even starts. At its worst moments, the album exemplifies the double-edged sword of having a singular production style: One man’s unique becomes another’s monochromatic. This is a shame, because Wonder Where We Land fares best when Jerome reaches out of his comfort zone: “Lantern” is the soulfully twisted IDM that Thom Yorke wishes he could make, and “Everybody Knows” threatens to become handclap-happy filter disco before settling into a brisk hip-hop groove supported by a woozy codeine-tinged vocal hook and punctuated with cymbals that sound like hot steam.
Jerome would do well to favor more colorful personalities to play against his strident productions. In fact, if there’s a lesson to be learned from Wonder Where We Land, it’s that SBTRKT songs serve as excellent canvases for heady rappers. Raury’s impressively bitter turn on “Higher” rescues what might have otherwise been a less-than-inspired Sampha feature, and A$AP Ferg’s gonzo sing-song delivery on “Voices in My Head,” paired with military drums and a menacing piano line, is a reminder of why there’s so much hype around A$AP Mob right now. Even Ezra Koenig’s playful guest turn on the bouncy “NEW DORP. NEW YORK,” which lays the singer’s zany millennial beat poetry over a reggae-inflected track, lends a refreshing dose of personality to an album that’s otherwise stoically straightfaced.