The art for Bibio’s last album, Ambivalence Avenue showed a tree-lined street, colors faded to nostalgic, bone-white hues like an old postcard. The music inside was similarly scratched and faded, acoustic guitar strums and piano chords and children’s cries worn to traces and obscured by a scrim of crackle and hiss. Mind Bokeh, two years later, is, by contrast brightly colored, both on its cover and inside. The acoustic guitars have mostly been replaced by synthesizers, keyboards and electric guitars. There’s a sheen of 1970s fusion funk to the entire enterprise and a less reflective, more hedonistic air.
Bibio, or Stephen Wilkinson, has always been concerned with the emotional content of surface noise. The way that the sound is delivered is almost as important to him as the sound itself. Here, even working in a more hedonistic palette, he subtly warps and distends his melodies. He feeds his synths and jazz flutes and chimes and drum machine beats through effects that shade them with complicated feeling. “Pretentious,” with its sleek, shimmering keyboards, its skanky slow-jam beat, wavers like it’s seen through water. It’s like a Commodores hit that you barely remember, slackening and blurring at the edges. Later, with “Light Seep,” porno-quality wah-wah guitars churn in a fermented stew of ’70s funk, vintage Return to Forever synths percolate through the murk. Yet even in this super-clean, super-crisp idiom, Bibio surrounds his sounds with odd, italicized space. The song is not just what it is, but what it reminds you of.
These are intricate constructions, full of strange little byways and fleeting moments of perception. They are, by nature, hard to pin down and open to interpretation. That’s what makes the lyrics the main weakness on Mind Bokeh. In a landscape of nuance and subtlety, they are often blindingly, distractingly obvious. “You pretend you pretend,” sings Bibio, over and over on “Pretentious,” not so full of sound and fury maybe, but still signifying nothing. Iridescent, evocative “Excuses” loses all its mystery when the “How was I supposed to know?” chorus shows up. It’s like bad subtitles in a foreign movie, reducing complicated narratives to cliché.
Mind Bokeh feels like a continuation of Ambivalence Avenue’s “Fire Ant,” in the way it applies Bibio’s distressed sonics to the textures of R&B and hip hop. A couple of exceptions – the samba-swaying, good time “K for Kelson” and the guitar-riffing “Take Off Your Shirt” – prove that the approach works just as well for sunny, uncomplicated formats -- maybe even better. With Mind Bokeh Bibio recognizes that our happiest, hands-in-the-air, hedonistic moments are shadowed with memory. A bit of hiss, crackle or distortion can evoke the sadness under the celebration.