SBTRKT’s self-titled debut was one of the most intriguing albums to emerge from the UK’s electronic music scene in 2011. Coming out of the gate with such a fully formed sound, as mastermind Aaron Jerome did, can either be a sign of big things in the future or of a coming struggle to advance past a celebrated debut. One of the reasons SBTRKT hit so hard was because it was overwhelmingly SBTRKT’s album. Frequent collaborator Sampha, R&B singer Jessie Ware, and Little Dragon all contributed vocals, but they essentially provided another instrument for Jerome to work with. On his follow-up, Wonder Where We Land, he has a bigger Rolodex to work with and chooses to build his songs around guest vocals, adding a unique panache but also sacrificing total control. This is still very much SBTRKT’s music, but he’s less focused on proving himself as a singular artist, instead showcasing his ability to work with a wider array of musicians.
Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, one of the album’s most conspicuous guests, lends his voice to “NEW DORP. NEW YORK”, a song that’s sure to soundtrack the changing season for plenty of New Yorkers, with an aggressively earwormy bass line and the most creative drumbeats on the album. Atlanta prodigy Raury spits absolute fire on “Higher”, expertly toeing the line between being emotionally vulnerable and hardened by his environment. The production on that track is among the sharpest on the album, echoing and snapping at the perfect times and providing an excellent backdrop for Raury’s rapid delivery.
Once again, Sampha plays a huge part on this album, settling into his role as the voice you’d expect to come out of the mask SBTRKT wears onstage. His soulful vocals are hesitant one moment and dominant the next, and the dynamic these two are forging might be among the most fruitful of the post-dubstep landscape. “If It Happens” is a straightforward piano ballad, the barest track on the album, but Sampha’s lovelorn lyrics about self-deception for the sake of companionship elevate the minimalist backdrop to a tearjerking high. It’s followed by the unabashedly goofy “Gon Stay”, which still features Sampha at the top of his vocal range in addition to a Seinfeld-y bass line that seems entirely obtuse until it finds a place amongst the rest of the instruments. Both of these songs are great, but they highlight the biggest flaw of this album: the sequencing.
Wonder Where We Land tends to fall into lulls and then fling itself out of them in the strangest ways. The most noticeable instance comes in the transition from the tandem of “Look Away” and “Osea” into “Temporary View”. “Look Away” finds Caroline Polachek’s angelic voice jumbled beautifully into a mess of snares and effects; it’s one of the more frantic tracks on the album, but it settles nicely into its last 30 seconds as it transitions into the visceral and contemplative “Osea”, featuring Koreless.
These probably should’ve been the last two tracks on the album. “Osea” is the kind of slow burn that would’ve benefited from different placement in the track listing, because as soon as it finishes its hypnotic flourishing and fades out to silence, “Temporary View” jumps into the mix with a skittering beat and a magnetic Sampha feature, reminding us exactly why SBTRKT’s first album captured attention. It’s probably the strongest track on Wonder, but after “Osea”, it feels jarring.
The same goes for album closer “Voices in My Head”, with A$AP Ferg. Again, it’s a brilliant track stuck in the wrong spot. Ferg finds a middle ground for his lyrics somewhere just shy of the hard persona that occupies most of his own Trap Lord, and his cadence works well alongside a piano and drum-driven beat. He definitely scores bonus points for fitting the word dialysis into a song — that can’t be an easy feat. But as the closing track, it ends things with an uncomfortable level of uncertainty.
Sequencing qualms aside, this album succeeds on so many levels and proves Jerome to be a powerhouse in not only his genre but in music today. No two tracks are wholly similar; each have their own distinguishing features and incredible songwriting. His growth as an artist is clear, even if it’s mostly hidden by these guests. “Lantern” is one of only four tracks on the album with no features; there, Jerome can flex his well-honed skills as a producer, with a beat that sounds like it was made at the bottom of a well quickly turning into a hyperactive dub freak-out.
SBTRKT builds houses for his guest vocalists to live in, and he spoils the shit out of them. He’s proven mastery over his craft and shown that he can work with just about anyone and still put out some of the best product on the market. Now, listeners and fans will just have to wait for the genius to make his next move. I wonder where he’ll land.
Essential Tracks: “Look Away” (feat. Caroline Polachek), “Temporary View” (feat. Sampha), and “Voices in My Head” (feat. A$AP Ferg)