Post-Dubstep, Post-Olympic: On SBTRKT & “Bollocks Music”

SBTRKT's new album Wonder Where We Land represents the apex of dubstep morphed into marketable navel-gazing romantic mithering. Is this closer to nu-folk than you might expect and the sound of post-Olympic Britain, asks Joe Kennedy

Honestly, one day I’m going to stop writing heavily personalised ledes, but in this case I really don’t think there’s another way into writing about an album which really screws with my epistemology of the musically wrong. The story, which is not as made-up as some of my other personalised ledes, is about a time around six years ago when I found myself watching Later…with Jools Holland while my stepdad was doing the crossword. Bloc Party were playing ‘Mercury’, which, if you care to recall, is like a meta-version of their noughties indie disco filler and a sort-of-lament about the beginning of the economic crisis and being too old to enjoy indie discos or indie disco filler anymore. To cut to the chase, about a third of the way through the song my stepfather looked up from his puzzle and said, and I’m rendering it in its true Darlingtonian syntax so the full impact of his disdain can be conveyed, "this is bollocks music this, like".

At first this might seem like a story whose moral is to do with generational difference: hey everyone, here’s my stepdad not getting on with Bloc Party’s rad new direction! How, well, square! It isn’t, though – it actually lays out, implicitly, a sine qua non of pop criticism, namely, taken on its own terms and with literally no contextual awareness, whether or not the record or artist in question is actually any good. To say "this is bollocks this, like" is one thing, but to say "this is bollocks music this, like" is to really stick the boot in, to remind the musicians that they’re failing on the terms they’re perpetually complaining reviewers ignore in favour of high-faluting ideology critique and undergrad dialectic. Sometimes, the music simply is bollocks.

Of course, there has to be some frame of reference for bollocks-calling, which is usually other music. In the case of SBTRKT, whose latest album sees Aaron Jerome further explore the vein of having-a-post-millennial-cry, post-Hyperdub, horse-tranq pop, the frame of reference is twofold (it’s a pretty bloody explorable vein, come to think of it, seeing as you can more or less whack anything into it and everyone will think it’s real creative). First, it’s Hyperdub-school dubstep itself – why are SBTRKT ‘post-‘ their main influence in any sense other than a certain stylistic borrowing? The second, and probably more important frame, is what I’m going to call, in one last attempt to define something journalistically before I’m middle-aged, the post-Olympic.

Danny Boyle’s heart is in the right place, but he’s got a fair bit to answer for in terms of how we’ve come to understand and consume popular music as a nation. The well-intentioned and conscientiously anti-classicist line-up for the Olympic opening ceremony in 2012 stated that the United Kingdom was not only the home of the Beatles, but also of Fuck Buttons and Emeli Sandé and Dizzee. So eclectic. So electronic. Mix all of this stuff together, moreover, and you get the ubiquitous sound of GB2014, which is a kind of nervy, at once euphoric and dysphoric, super-produced maximalism which pulls off the very odd trick of looking on the surface, in its repetitiveness and Pro-Tooled spatiality, like a form of minimalism. Post-dubstep is perhaps the most obvious instance of this false minimalism: it appropriates the drained, anxious skeletality of its source code, the music which indexed the plausible dystopo-Britain of Children Of Men, and burdens it with the paradoxically marketable overtones of purely personal crisis to produce a positivised version of negation.

SBTRKT, down to the name chosen for Aaron Jerome’s project, represents an affinity with dubstep’s compositional nudity. It retains the subtractive logic of its progenitor, leaving long, tense corridors of un-sound along which we are invited to project our postmodern dread, omitting beats in baneful tribute to the unnerving asymmetry of the deathly now. But this is death warmed up, death brandishing its CV, death who really wants to get asked to be on the next series of Skins and maybe even go to the Brits, death with an Instagram account, death with ‘regular collaborators’, death DJing in a restaurant whose premier culinary attraction is ‘slaw’. This is music which uses the sonic architecture of the twenty-first century’s digitalised angst to talk about how it really actually sort of likes the twenty-first century quite a lot, about how it’s having a fairly nice time and it doesn’t really know what everyone is moaning about.

SBTRKT’s most obvious equivalents, however odd it sounds, are Mumford & Sons. M&S also paper pop’s this-is-awful-emotionally-but-let’s-all-have-a-dance-anyway truisms all over folk, a form that once possessed genuine political currency. Both bands are also notable adherents to the law of the slurred consonant, that staple of Brit School Britain and post-Doherty naffness alike, a form of singing which unites regular SBTRKT guesters Jessie Ware and Sampha with Jamie T and Lily Allen and Kele Okereke. The slurred consonant is a vocal technique, or perhaps anti-technique, designed to obscure origin – it’s a tic that, because it belongs to no existing dialect in any form of world English, indexes placelessness and, by extension, the post-political. It simultaneously expresses emotional authenticity and insouciance, and finds its way onto the majority of the non-instrumental tracks on Wonder Where We Land (the title: more stylised postmodern placelessness).

Post-dubstep and nu-folk have more than irritating vocals in common, though. Both appropriate a very specific, embedded music to the purpose of a very abstract expression of what it’s like to be young (namely, a bit scary and a bit exciting). With post-dubstep, the appropriation is odd because what denoted dubstep – or at least that which feeds P-D’s aesthetic – as being embedded in its cultural moment was the cagily inspecific nature of its signature anxiety. What, say, Burial and Kode9 got exactly right was a depiction of how the condition of living in modern Britain is one of constant worrying about something undefinable. That kind of angst does not lend itself to marketing, but personal and romantic mithering, as ever, does. So here, it’s all Jessie and Sampha opening up about their reeee-lay-shun-ships and feeling so, so sad, disarming the negative capability (check your Keats) of much of the best electronic music to come out of Britain in the noughties by reducing it to a recognisable soundtrack of heartache. It’s all so disingenuous.

I’d list individual tracks but, seriously, this is just a big mulch of bleeps and (generally quite unconvincing) beats and fluttery synths and collaborations, endless, endless collaborations. Is there any music anywhere nowadays which is not a collaboration? I can’t help but feel David Cameron stages a COBRA meeting at the beginning of each year where he and George Osbourne and all the other lads get together and draw a big map of all the collaborations that are going to take place in the next twelve months – ‘I’ve got a spare Ed Sheeran in August, Dave!’ ‘Don’t worry, Calvin Harris can lay something down for him!’ – and then all the musicians featured go off and have a massive party round Rita Ora’s house and discuss how they’ll make it look spontaneous and natural. EVERYONE IS HAVING SUCH A BRILLIANT TIME TOGETHER! THE CREATIVE INDUSTRIES ARE THRIVING! YOU’RE NOT REALLY LONELY, BROKE AND DYING! LET’S DO THE GIG RIGHT HERE!

This is bollocks music this, like.

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