In the post-chillwave world, it’s really not that hard to find artists obsessed with blur. There’s whole websites dedicated to exposing artists who specialize in hazy, faux polaroid promo photos. Here though, ‘bokeh’ is something different. As Stephen Wilkinson himself has stated in interviews, ‘bokeh’ comes from the Japanese word for blur, and is used in photography to describe the area outside the depth of field. It seems to me that’s an appropriate analogy for Wilkinson’s work to date–clear, distinct songcraft enveloped by a hazy cover. This analogy becomes ever clearer on this latest effort which certainly features some of his best songwriting to date.
From the opening track, it’s clear that Wilkinson has gone for an even more defined electro pop sound than 2009’s Ambivalence Avenue. Any claims of a so called folktronica influence are easily dispelled with the distorted beats and little samples under his pleading vocal. Though it’s a bit difficult to make out what he’s saying entirely, the emotional impact is still made. His string of questions (“How was I supposed to know/if you wouldn’t tell me?”) sounds just as heart breaking even though the emotional punchline is somewhat obscured by the production. Yet that’s not even mentioning the spiraling arpeggiated outro. However brief, these few moments are on another level. Ambivalence Avenue was great, but it just feels like Wilkinson has stepped up his game so much. Everything that he does, he does better. Even on “K is For Kelson”–which seems to me the most direct answer to Ambivalence’s standout “Lovers’ Carvings”–he just shatters expectations. It’s the most acoustic sounding piece on the record, but with its tropical beat and light-hearted synth sounds it just soars beyond what his earlier work was capable of.
Now, to the track that’ll likely have everyone talking–and for good reason. “Take Off Your Shirt” is certainly an odd song out in this collection. On an album so focused with this haziness, “Take Off Your Shirt” stands in clear focus–and some sort of weird cock rock focus at that. The 80s guitars are sure to leave a bad taste in the mouth of some, but it seems to work. It’s an odd track to have in the middle of an album so different, but it’s just so catchy. As odd as it is to say about a Bibio song, it has crossover potential, for better or for worse. That isn’t to say that Wilkinson was looking for a crowd pleaser; it seems to serve another purpose as well. The emotional impact of the following track, the subdued “Artists’ Valley,” is accentuated greatly because of its placement next to the aforementioned party anthem.
Mind Bokeh as a whole certainly functions nicely as a fuzzy underbelly to Ambivalence Avenue. While there may not be a song to soundtrack an Amazon advertisement in this bunch, it’ll work nicely to soundtrack bleary summer nights–probably for years to come.