In retrospect, it’s easy to label what each year sounded like in music. 1969 was psychedelic rock music; 1977 was disco; 1985 was new wave (and Bruce Springsteen); 1991 was grunge; 1999 was teen pop stars; 2012 was dubstep. It’s much more difficult to describe what the “sound of today” is. For one thing, each year brings more genre crossover than the year before it, from Taylor Swift featuring dubstep production to Avicii featuring a folk ballad. Additionally, as streaming and MP3 downloading become more and more popular, to the point where far more students listen to Spotify than the radio, popular taste becomes divergent as individuals develop keen, eclectic tastes. So that’s why listening to the excellent second album, Wonder Where We Land, by British electronic musician SBTRKT should both amaze and confound listeners; it’s composed of everything popular now but still carves out its space as an album unlike any other released this year.
SBTRKT, also known as Aaron Jerome, released a couple of EPs in 2010 before dropping his self-titled debut album in 2011, bringing him to the center of the electronic music scene as well as some radio play in the form of the single “Wildfire,” featuring Little Dragon (and later remixed by Drake). That album was an up-tempo, dance-focused electronic collection heavily featuring frequent collaborator Sampha on vocals. With fast-paced, vocal-heavy tracks, it arrived perfectly at the center of a summer full of electronic pop music dominated by Rihanna, David Guetta and Calvin Harris.
In the three years since then, we’ve seen a delicate movement toward slower, more abstract, R&B-focused projects. Newcomers James Blake and Frank Ocean rewrote the book on what R&B could sound like and what stories it could tell, while pop musicians and rappers alike made a collective move toward the smoother, slower, sultrier side of music (see Drake, Lorde and Pharrell, who were featured everywhere). SBTRKT’s new album is an exercise in electronic abstraction. It is most certainly not a dancey album, the trait that made his debut so irresistible to begin with. Such a drastic change in style could spell doom for many musicians, but luckily SBTRKT has moved in the exact direction the rest of the world has.
The opener and title track “Wonder Where We Land” features Sampha once again, but rather than pitting him against a flurry of breakbeats, he is instead backed by sparse bass notes and bright piano chords before a flurry of falsetto voices, sped up and played backwards, breaking the minimalism of the song wide open. “Higher” features rapping by Raury and is chock full of lush synth production, but the slow boom-bap of the bass and snare never breaks tempo, with SBTRKT instead choosing to increase volume on the high-pitched, scream-like synths, creating the song’s climax. The track also features descriptive lyrics with clever wordplay, a treat in the oft-overlooked lyric sheet of the electronic music genre: “Use a fake ID to buy some cigarettes from the bodega / ate a pack of bad karma didn’t pay for now and laters / but my life is full of sufferings that happen now and later.”
“Look Away” combines all the tricks of the modern sample-heavy electronic game, with soaring, zithering theremin-like synths, blaring siren horns, backwards drums and haunting, tinkling pianos all graced by the soprano vocals of Caroline Polachek. All this building and climaxing in the first half of the album leads to an unexpected drop in energy on the standout track “New Dorp. New York.” Featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on vocals, this is a song with a distinctive theme and story to tell, that being old money in the neo-gothic New York City, with Koenig’s smooth delivery perfectly enunciating playful alliterations and assonance in lines like “Flags flappin’ in Manhattan” and “Gargoyles garglin’ oil.” The downtempo track, nearly all drum and shaker, stands against the lavish production found throughout the album and serves as a breakthrough in style for SBTRKT.
Other highlights include the emotion-drenched piano and vocal crooner “If It Happens,” as well as the intriguing closing track “Voices In My Head,” which takes a dark, noir jazz band through the electronic washing machine into the future and features notable New York rapper A$AP Ferg as he eerily brings the song to coda with the repetition of “Voices in my head, voices in my head.” The dense texture of the tracklist and numerous guest vocalists (including Jessie Ware, among others) make this an album ripe for repeated listening. While nearly none of the songs are simple, the mood is: swanky R&B brought to life with spooky synths, either very high or low in the register, and spacious, unpredictable rhythmic patterns. That SBTRKT was able to take components from all faces of current pop music and still create something that sounds both surprising and infective is a testament to his ability not just as a DJ and producer, but as a songwriter.