Riding the “post-dubstep” (probably second only to “EDM” for controversial genre titles) wave, Aaron Jerome won success with his first LP but then sunk into the dreaded “mixed reviews” status with his second. Critics and fans alike rightly detracted it for being overblown, indecisive, and misarranged. Perhaps this is much of what led to SAVE YOURSELF. In the extensive manifesto on his website, he loudly proclaims that it is “not an album,” and he praises the feelings of his first album, implying that his second did not have a praise-worthy release process. He states his independence from and dislike of “label cycles and the end of increasing sales” and shouts out this latest EP/album/non-album as “the most interesting musical stories I’ve made to date,” setting the mood as “a dark optimism.” It’s difficult to tell what of this is serious, what of it is an overblown PR strategy in an attempt to reclaim some of the status he used to hold before Wonder Where We Land. There’s probably a bit of both.
SAVE YOURSELF is twenty-five minutes of electronic-R&B that successfully blends the two genre’s strengths superbly. He has completely abandoned the constant fast-paced percussion of yesterday, instead aiming more for dramatic snaps and ambience, more a jam session than a DJ set. Over time, SBTRKT has adapted to have more to do with the “wonky” label (a few songs on here sound like they should have been on Hudson Mohawke’s Lantern) than the “bass” label. There’s a lot more innovation going on in the former than the latter, but unfortunately this piece isn’t doing much in that department. Pretty much every song goes on too long, including the two-minute “READY OR NOT”. Interestingly, they also manage to change it up too early, like on “GEMINI,” one of the better songs, which transforms near its conclusion into some unnecessary synth meandering, ending in a dark beat that would have fit perfectly before “TBD”, but has nothing to do with “GOOD MORNING.” Track ordering and songwriting issues aren’t new to SBTRKT, but it would have been nice to see a change this far into his career.
On the other hand, this is some of the sleekest production you’ll hear this year. “LET THEM IN” takes the aforementioned, mostly forgotten bass and attempts to fit as much of it as it can into one track. Fuzzed-out bass contrasted with subtler drums provide a dark and welcome contrast to the mostly wandering R&B tracks of the rest of the release. Even though too many songs bore in the long-term, they’re all incredibly sleek and betray an enormous talent, always abstaining from showing off. Additionally, the few that do it well do it really well – “REVERT” utilizes The-Dream to do faded, sad, vocal-shifting, Burial-inspired R&B way better than any OVO crew member, slowly developing from a basic echoed synth into something suitably dramatic. Despite the previously mentioned flawed conclusion, “GEMINI” is a brilliant introduction, genuinely gorgeous at points. “BURY YOU” works as a great downbeat finale, slowly taking longer to swipe its bass back and forth until it completely stops, with just a single organ key left to fade. Beyond the production, the vocalists are superb. The-Dream, as underrated as ever, handles the three tracks he’s on brilliantly, adding an interest that SBTRKT could not have captured with instrumentals alone. He takes advantage of D.R.A.M. (of “Cha Cha” fame) and his relatively unknown tragic side, throwing in the new singer Mabel for a great and completely necessary contrast to the former. And of course, Sampha suits the mood exceptionally, though the other vocalists help enormously in sparking an interest.
Despite the frequent claims of their art being completely their own and unaffected by the corruptive influence of outside opinion or commercial success, artists are people too. Aaron Jerome really wants to be his own man, but SAVE YOURSELF makes it obvious he’s listening to the critics. It’s short where his past projects have been far too long, the “post-dubstep” ideas that have fallen out of critical favor are completely gone, and he even goes so far as attempting to claim immunity to criticism by showcasing it as a non-album. Unfortunately for him, this concerned effort to stay relevant isn’t really working for him, at least not as well as he presumably hopes, given that he’s presenting this as his best work yet. Fortunately for us, this mainstream ignorance allows his work to be relatively innovative and at the very least fascinating. Without the critical eye forcing wild or dull decisions, but still allowing for moderate success given his past fame, SBTRKT is able to do whatever he wants now. It’s up to him to either capitalize or disappoint with this newfound freedom.
– Kirk B.