“I’m going back to my roots” is a statement that we often hear in today’s musical landscape. Sometimes, it happens following a commercial dud of an album. Occasionally, the back to my roots album comes after rigorous stadium touring, yearning for simpler beginnings. Or, it’s a deflection from a “bad” image, resulting in cleaning up one’s act. For Steven Wilkinson, artistically known as Bibio, Ribbons is a sequel to the structured storytelling of his 2016 album, A Mineral Love.
With Ribbons, Wilkinson steps away from the ambient electronica of 2017 album, Phantom Brickworks. That doesn’t mean he’s ditched the intelligent dance music that defined past releases. In fact, the touches of synthesizers serve to elevate the gentle nature of Ribbons. On 28 February this year, Wilkinson took to Twitter to discuss the new album, divulging that it’s “an album made very much in admiration of nature, yet through a tinted window of manmade escapism. Recalling the beauty in nature and the sadness of seeing it spoiled.”
It’s easy to forget that Steven Wilkinson is a self-taught musician, singer, and producer, as he effortlessly plays almost every instrument featured on the album. Album opener “Beret Girl” only features an electric guitar. For the readers who like lists, here’s a number of instruments Wilkinson picks up throughout Ribbons’ 53-minute run-time. From “Beret Girl” onwards, Wilkinson is playing at least five instruments per song, including mellotron, electric piano, bass guitar, saxophone, clarinet, mandolin, harp, violin, cavaquinho (a four-string guitar), the drums, and of course, nylon and steel-string acoustic guitars.
Wilkinson procured the album title from “Pretty Ribbons And Lovely Flowers,” the most electronic-leaning track on the album. “Pretty Ribbons And Lovely Flowers” solicits an uneasy feeling by distorting Lillian Hill’s haunting vocals, complimenting the warped synth sequence. That’s nothing compared to “Erdaydidder-Erdiddar,” a mostly instrumental track featuring mesmerizing Celtic violin and guitar. Wilkinson’s voice is often beautiful, but in “Erdaydidder-Erdiddar,” his indecipherable vocals are downright creepy.
“Before” and “Old Graffiti” are the strangest songs here. “Before” sees Wilkinson soak in ‘70s soul influence, while “Old Graffiti” follows a Brazilian-inspired shuffling beat. The track plays on the feelings prompted by gazing at old graffiti – once spectacular, now unremarkable. Wilkinson presses the concept into an unraveling relationship that sees the couple defeated and jaded. It’s devastating, but Wilkinson’s diverse, thrilling ideas prevent “Old Graffiti” from spiraling into a tear-jerking affair.
“Cherry trees in bloom viewed from my living room/remind me of all the times I’ve lied or wished that I had died/then they soothe me,” Wilkinson softly croons in “The Art Of Living.” It’s a gorgeous track that creates a wistful trance-like feeling, encapsulated by lightly picked acoustic guitar and warm use of synthesizers. Wilkinson is reliant on melodic lines in order to express rhythm and groove, rather than pulsing percussion in lead single, “Curls.” It’s the first track that comprehensively explores Ribbons’ core concept of the sadness in seeing nature spoiled. “Curls” revels in the sense of recollection, without fear to ask tough questions: “who’d have thought that we’d break the things we like?” and, harder still: “who’d have thought that we’d turn our home to hell?”
In “Ode To A Nuthatch,” Wilkinson reaches back for his signature sound of tape-saturated fingerpicked guitar. Each instrumental track, from the dreamy folk of “Patchouli May” to the melancholy “Valley Wulf,” never stray too far from the insightful storytelling that so cohesively binds everything together. Wilkinson displays further maturity and a keener melodic ear with Ribbons, poignantly evolving his unique style even further.
While the harmonious ideas enclosed in Ribbons are as stunning as the album cover, it’s just missing something. Light key flourishes or a slight shuffle beat wouldn’t have gone amiss in boosting the crushing “Quarters.” There’s no doubt that Ribbons is lovely. Its folk ballads oscillated with ‘70s psychedelia, soul, electronic and field recordings deliver exemplary results. Ribbons feels timeless. But, part of what makes another 2019 album like Titanic Rising by Weyes Blood so extraordinary and equally timeless is Natalie Mering’s ability to fuse lush mid-tempo tracks with towering climaxes that at no time feel out of place. There’s no climax in Ribbons, and that’s sorely missed.
With Ribbons, Wilkinson seamlessly swings between genres, coupling his familiar style with the unknown. The album sees him move folk music forward in delightful ways, while additionally paying homage to his idols, various cultures, and his English woodland home. “Forming and growing/and growing and forming/the feeling of something around you is never-ending” are Ribbons’ final words. Maybe we’ll stop destroying our environment. We might just learn to sit back and admire its beauty, and let ourselves get wrapped up in everything nature has to offer.