Ribbons by BibioRelease date: April 12, 2019
Label: Warp Records
Stephen Wilkinson (aka Bibio) has a back catalogue that could be described as “eclectic”. Running the gamut from glitch to hip-hop to folk to indie rock to ambient electronica, Wilkinson has truly shown off his diverse range in a prolific career spanning ten albums. With Ribbons, the Wolverhampton native moves away from the unstructured ambient of his 2017 release, Phantom Brickworks; largely eschewing his electronic roots altogether and taking a more acoustic-led, folky approach. Indeed, Ribbons is an image of rural Britain, a gentle meander through pastoral life. Incorporating softer guitar work, flutes, fiddles, and a mandolin, as well as a menagerie of countryside sounds, Wilkinson tells of a simpler life. Yet there is an incredibly sinister undercurrent that develops throughout the album, a sense of haunting that helps shape a unique tone.
It starts innocuously enough. The opening twosome of the instrumental ‘Beret Girl’ and ‘The Art of Living’ set the tone nicely – twinkling guitars, minimal percussion and a lazy countryside aesthetic, with Wilkinson’s gentle, wistful vocals lulling the listener in. There’s a brief departure from the rustic vibe on ‘Before’, a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on an 80s cop show, but things get back on track with lead single ‘Curls’ and jolly folk of ‘Watch the Flies’. It’s around this point that the album’s sinister nature truly settles in – ‘It’s Your Bones’ is the best song on the album, haunting, miserable and with a true sense of melancholy. It only gets worse with ‘Pretty Ribbons and Lovely Flowers’ (which marks a return to the ambience of Phantom Brickworks, with Wilkinson making good use of loops and distorted female vocals) and the unsettling ‘Erdaydidder-Erdiddar’, a galloping instrumental that uses violins, flutes and whispers to great effect. These songs largely feel like a natural evolution of the album’s organic palette, a corruption of the album’s early purity.
Unfortunately this leaves the rest of Ribbons feeling like its missing something. Aside from the upbeat samba stylings of ‘Old Graffiti’, a late album highlight, the last few tracks are rather lacklustre by comparison to what’s come before. ‘Patchouli May’ is a fine instrumental, with gentle sweeping violins, but doesn’t contribute much and gets a bit lost in the mix. ‘Quarters’ again is a fine track but does nothing unique. It’s a shame – perhaps these songs would have been better placed earlier on in the album. There are also a number of shorter, largely instrumental tracks that end up feeling tacked on. Some, such as ‘Ode to a Nuthatch’ and ‘You Couldn’t Hear the Birds Sing’ contribute to the album’s lazy, meandering feel, while others such as ‘Frankincense and Coal’ feel like unnecessary filler or experiments that haven’t really gone anywhere.
It’s a shame the album feels so bloated as, for the most part, Ribbons is a lovely curio. It’s gentle, meandering pace is a breath of fresh air, and Wilkinson has imbued it with a sinister wistfulness that is quintessentially British. Those expecting chilled out electronica from a Bibio album will be disappointed with this offering of acoustic folk, but for everyone else Ribbons cements Stephen Wilkinson as one of the most diverse and unpredictable musicians in Britain at the moment.