Migration is one of the highest-profile releases we’ve ever reviewed; on release day, it was #1 on iTunes. Simon Green (Bonobo) certainly doesn’t need our help. So why review it? First of all, it’s that good. Second, while minor masterpieces tend to be ignored by larger audiences (often because they haven’t heard of them), crossover albums tend to be ignored by alternative audiences (because they suspect they won’t be worth the attention). Third, everyone has to start somewhere, and hardly anyone had heard of Bonobo when Animal Magic appeared back in 2000, save for the forward-thinking writers at magazines such as Mixmag, Musik, Jockey Slut and DJ. Back then, my mix tapes were populated by Tipper, Dusted, Fingathing and Way Out West (I keep notes), and none of them have aged this well. How has Green done what others have not?
The easiest answer is that Green has continued to evolve. By keeping one ear to the clubs and another to the streets, he’s kept track of new movements in music, and has adapted his sound accordingly. But that’s not the whole story. Listening to Green’s discography, one realizes that he has also kept portions of his core sound. In other words, he’s integrated innovations, but not trends. There’s still a lot of soul in these grooves and a faint residue of trip-hop; Green’s roots show, but in a pleasant way. A secondary reason for the artist’s continued relevance is that while he continues to integrate vocals (first apparent on Days to Come), he also continues to offer gorgeous instrumental tracks; and as many of the vocals are textural, the new album is dominated by the music.
Migration is only Bonobo’s sixth album; each set has been followed by 3-4 years of gestation. The latest period of refinement has been put to good use, as Migration is his best set in a decade. It may even be his best since Animal Magic, but we’ll need some time for it to sink in before drawing such a conclusion. The primary reason is its flow; Migration works far better as an album than its immediate predecessors, more often remembered for their highlights (Black Sands‘ “Kiara” and The North Borders‘ “Cirrus”). (We do take some pride in noting that both of these tracks are instrumental.) Apart from wise track sequencing, the reason for the flow is simple ~ this is a concept album.
Where is home? Is it where we are born, where we live, where the heart is, or an amalgamation? Green’s reflections on a geographically scattered family, as well as his global experiences of travel, factor into the theme of migration. As a traveler, Green brings back souvenirs, in this case sonic: “an elevator in a Hong Kong airport, rain in Seattle, a tumble dryer in Atlanta, a fan boat engine in New Orleans”. He samples Brandy and Pete Seeger; he invites the participation of international performers; and over it all, he paints a wistful tone: you’re my favourite, but we’re phasing … oh, if it hadn’t been for …”
Often the fragment is more powerful than the whole, whether a broken beat or interrupted sentence. The final statement is incomplete; the strings wrap the album in a bow, a gift to a traveler departing or returning. But the listener is left with the impression of a restless heart, whose physical and spiritual homes are out of synch, grounded yet still flying, home but not home, pondering the necessity of yet another migration. This may be an inheritance of the modern world ~ to be so connected and yet feel so out of place. If so, Bonobo has captured something larger than the spirit of travel. He’s translated jet lag into soul lag, and provided it with a score. (Richard Allen)