On Ribbons, Stephen Wilkinson continues to explore the vast gray space that occupies his songcraft
★★★1/2 (3.5/5 stars)
Stephen Wilkinson makes music for loners, introverts and homebodies, protective sonic shields of soothing, genre-fluid folktronica that show off his skills as a guitarist, producer and composer.
Last week Wilkinson released his 9th studio album proper, Ribbons, a slight return to more traditional song structures after 2017’s detour into ambient minimalism, Phantom Brickworks. Wilkinson must have always intended Ribbons to be a springtime release, as the second track, “The Art of Living”, opens with these words:
Cherry trees in bloom
View from my living room
Of all the times I’ve lied
Or wished that I had died
And it soothes me
Right from the outset, we get a concrete image about our singer—he’s privy to the beauty of spring, but consciously removed from it, too. He’s also been through some shit, but looks out to nature, to the natural world, for grounding and guidance.
We then get another verse about a woman (presumably his mum) setting him on her knee, blessing him with freedom and health, then pushing him off in order to teach him what it means to fall and get back up again.
“The Art of Living” says a lot about the grey space that Wilkinson’s songs occupy, not just his inability to be typified by genre (as his 2009 Warp debut, Ambivalence Avenue made clear), but in the limbo between synthetic and organic production, personal and universal meaning, pastoral arrangements and beatified groovers.
Just as “The Art of Living” suggests a personal journey through pain, several other Ribbons compositions imply that Wilkinson has recently suffered a great loss. “Curls”, a song about memory and longing, finds him singing about ‘breaking the things we like’ and ‘turning our home to hell’; “It’s Your Bones,” meanwhile, evokes imagery of death and rot to speak about the memories of a person manifesting as physical remains in an abounded home.
On the other hand, reading too much into these lyrics may be disingenuous, as they come from a man who closes “The Art of Living” by declaring “Words are not the heart/Or secret to the art of living.” To that point, the vagaries of Wilkinson’s sonic moods, beautiful thought they may be, prevent the glimmers of a resonant theme or artistic statement from ever emerging.
That’s a bummer, because so much here feels deliberately, delicately conceived and it’s often on the cusp of coalescing into a fully-realized work but never quite gets there. There are only two real ‘bangers’ here (“Before” and “Old Graffiti”), while the rest of the album floats along through gorgeous string arrangements and minimal electronics, wafting with an air that many a reviewer has rightly described as ‘bucolic’.
It’s also quite the bummer that Wilkinson told PopMatters he wouldn’t be playing live shows around Ribbons, as watching these songs blossom onstage might bridge the gap between their personal cryptic energy and lush arrangements.
“I won’t be touring with this record,” he said. “It’s not something I want to do in general. I’m not a performer, not on stage anyway. I like to perform alone in my home or studio into microphones, that’s how I like to express myself as a musician, it’s a place where I can get lost in my world of imagination and make something for people to connect to, I can’t feel like that in front of an audience, it’s the total opposite in fact, it takes me so far out of the zone that I don’t feel like I can get into the music.”
Wilkinson goes onto explain how the stage feels as strange to him as it might to a writer, painter or film director. “I’m often faced with an expectation that I should perform live because I think we’ve inherited a culture that still sees music as something to be performed and that musicians are default performers, but I’m interested in the art of making records, and not trying to recreate them on stage,” he continues, citing jazz as the rare example of live music he enjoys because the magic in those performances is palpable in performance.
This is, of course, a reductive and sad generality that shows Wilkinson’s hermetic approach to music-making holds him back from achieving a universality with his music (not to mention a much heartier revenue stream in live performance). Ribbons’ string arrangements telegraph the interplay of a quartet dynamic, reminding us of that Wilkinson approaches these recordings like a composer, an ambition fully realized in 2014 when he scored the Jason Reitman film, Men, Women & Children.
How then, with all of these human sounds superimposing themselves over electronic rigidity, is it demeaning or impure for Wilkinson to fully realize songs in a performative capacity? Ribbons shows that the man is still living in the ether between a composer and a producer, the triumph of its transcendent moments forever handicapped by their creator’s commitment to his role of ingenue. Maybe figuring out a way to play them live would give such beautiful moments room to breathe and become more then fleeting. It’s enough to wonder if taking this music outside might will their power into the waking world.