In just about every profession that I can think of involving any degree of fame, early success isn't necessarily a good thing. Having one's name in the spotlight from the get-go insures that someone will always be watching, so you'd better have more than just beginners' luck. Stephen Wilkinson, better known by his moniker Bibio, must know the feeling. His major label debut, Ambivalence Avenue, was one of the best albums of 2009, full of groovy, retro-tinged jams saddled right along side trippy, chilled-out beats, not to mention the stunning Lovers Carvings. But two years have past now, and so it's time for Wilkinson to strap up and have another go at it, but this time, he'll have an audience no matter what. How's that for a blessing and a curse?
At first, the differences between Ambivalence Avenue and Mind Bokeh couldn't be more pronounced. Where AA opened with it's title track, a warm and inviting layering of Wilkinson's smooth, fuzzed-out voice, MB opts for something much darker and less inviting in Excuses. The song takes over two minutes to fully form before Wilkinson's voice gets involved, bubbling into existence in a way that reminds of Avey Tare's Down There. It's an intriguing exercise in both darkness and patience for a guy who usually doesn't visit those kinds of places, but only the last minute or so could really be called exciting. While decidedly sunnier than the opener, follow-up track Prententious also floats around in an eerie manner for a minute before the comforting vocals of the chorus arrive, and even then, it's awfully down tempo. On many occasions through out the album, MB almost sounds like Bibio in slow motion.
But Stephen Wilkinson is no dummy: He knows that he makes killer summer-time jams, and he returns to that strength as early as track three, Anything New, which bounds along on a heavy bass beat and any number of slippery synths. It pairs well with Wake Up!, which calls back to the bedroom electro-pop of some of his best, most emotionally rich songs. And while it's all a great listen, there's an overwhelming feeling in the early goings of Mind Bokeh that dreams of matching Avenue might have proved too lofty. An apt illustration comes in the form of Light Sleep, which is funky, groovy, and fun, but when matched right up against the immediately comparable Jealous Of Roses, it begins to sound like a drag. The emphasis on fun simply seems far less prominent this time around. Even the tracks that could stand right beside Wilkinson's best, like the fiery and fast-paced Take Off Your Shirt, could hardly be described as jubilant.
Mind Bokeh, like Ambivalence Avenue, only operates on two levels: good and great. While Bibio's new disc spends a considerable amount more time in the former category, it's certainly not without a visit or two to the other. K is For Kelson is, without question, the album's most blissful tune, and likely its best. Bells and triangles dance around in the background of Wilkinson's heavily manipulated voice, aided by breezy guitar and synth parts, and at 3:29, it's one of the only songs on the album that doesn't overstay its welcome. The other songs on the album's back half are much more content to go without vocals than what came before them, and even when one does feature them, as in the case of More Excuses, they often only stick around for half the track. The shift is more or less reflective of the change-up that Ambivalence Avenue also makes at its mid-section, the quality of both second acts more or less foretold by the first. It's too bad that I can't muster up more enthusiasm for Mind Bokeh, which is without a doubt an above average album. I guess that's just the weight of expectations.