It’s been seven years since the release of English DJ/Musician SBTRKT’s last project, Save Yourself, and now, he’s back with The Rat Road. Though the music has been there, fans have eagerly awaited a follow-up to the former, and who could blame them? Save Yourself was a push away from many soundscapes that aligned Wonder Where We Land, specifically its pivot from bombastic layering. It doesn’t push SBTRKT from getting creative and finding ways to let the sounds glimmer beneath vocals from the featured artists. He did so graciously and remarkably with The Dream on a few tracks on Save Yourself, and that consistency mirrors with a few artists on The Rat Road. For lack of a better term, it’s more melodic and focuses less on a need for drum patterns to define the rhythmic trajectory, pushing his creativity to new levels. That isn’t to say it’s devoid of drums, or rather percussion latent, but what SBTRKT does with The Rat Road is bring forth new dimensions to his craft, allowing for a stellar and mesmerizing journey that comes with a few setbacks, primarily with pacing; yet, I couldn’t recommend this more.
SBTKRT’s absence from music has been known by fans and music lovers alike, and he has been missed. He was privy to that, as he motions to it with the first few tracks that speak on waiting and patience through varying perspectives. However, it’s here that we hear SBTRKT assimilating to the complexions of his featured artists, like Toro Y Moi, whose two songs sound like some cut tracks from an older record, specifically around the time of Moi’s fifth album Boo Boo. The Rat Road is SBTRKT’s most personal album, bringing to life the value of patience as it’s pertinent with themes of perseverance and happiness within music, which hasn’t given SBTRKT the best platform to feel free. As he would tell DJ Mag during an interview, “This album has been my most sonically ambitious record to create – following my own musical path – which isn’t based on other. The Rat Road’’s title is a play on the concept of ‘the rat race’. It’s partly based on my own challenging experiences within the music industry and life generally – though I realised the idea is not isolated from a much wider feeling of exhaustion.”
The Rat Road comes through with the means to keep a flow – finding new ways to build and get to the end with an understanding of his artistry and more. As you sit back and press play, The Rat Road begins to embody and emboldens these sentiments SBTRKT has felt, like angst, isolation, and depression, which we hear with the instruments, especially the piano keys on some songs, but more notably on “Go to Ground.” Through melancholic performances and these whirlwind-like moments after an interlude where the music takes on a new form, using the language of instrumental sound to help build parallels to mood getting expressed throughout the rest of the album. Unfortunately, it stumbles because the little sidesteps to interludes add little to the complexities of SBTRKT’s thematic direction – it’s more so this bridge between tracks, establishing a wide path to dissect, except it lacks some nuance and becomes forgettable in the long run. Some interludes or shorter songs bring emotional connectivity between production styles, building this sonic world further through intricate sounds that don’t incorporate vocals, like “Rain Crush” or “Saya Interlude.”
Though vocals give you a more direct feeling of what the artist wants to say, having instrumental-focused tracks brings a proper space between the directness. It provides listeners this break where we’re hearing SBTRKT’s authentic voice instead of a secondary body that is verbally accentuating what wants to get said. Disappointedly, it doesn’t know how to deliver a proper balance, as some get lost within the progressional fixtures of the album. “Coppa,” “Palm Reader,” and “Creepin’ Interlude,” whether it has vocals or not, feel transfixed in this world where it’s sense in adding unnecessary depth, unlike “Rain Crush,” which sets up some sound motifs, specifically with the piano and synths. After “Coppa,” we are given a three-track run of 90-second or shorter tracks that come and go swiftly, making the album feel meatier than it should be. It stunts the transitional fluidity we’ve gotten between longer songs, like from track 11, “You, Love,” to “Forward,” where it’s at a similar peak as the first four of the album, and most tracks with a featured artist, like phenomenal “I See Stairs” with Little Dragon.
The Rat Road gets centered on making it to the end, like the previously mentioned rat race, which SBTRKT noted it was. Think about the film from 2001, Rat Race, and the zaniness that took place while getting to the finale; SBTRKT follows this trajectory, except the music isn’t zany, instead more creatively fluid, extending beyond and finding new ways to incorporate instrumental layering with the songwriting, especially on “No Intention.” On the song, we continue to hear the strength between SBTRKT and Leilah in this beautiful cohesion of vocals and production, even when elements of the melody or harmony aren’t the most creatively astute. It’s the case with “No Intention” and “Forward;” the way Leilah deconstructs the emotional fortitude allows one to feel that tumultuous relationship SBTRKT has had with music and the music industry. What gets conveyed gets heard beautifully through melodically rich performances from featured artists, Sampha, Leilah, Teezo Touchdown, and Toro Y Moi. For the most part, they bring a sense of vibrancy – more so, the former artists as Toro Y Moi keep it simple and direct, almost leaving one to be a fan to get the most out of his performance.
SBTRKT wears his heart on his sleeve, and it shows, specifically through the unique instrumentations that burgeon through as their own character, making songs feel like duets. At first, it’s an album you could get lost in, but as it replays and replays, you begin to sense where it could have gotten tightened, leaving a more modestly paced progression. Though who am I to complain, since the music is fantastic and the performances – for the most part – elevate it further. For non fans, I couldn’t recommend this more, especially since it’s far from your typical dance/electronic album, bringing more emotional complexities to the fray and hitting it on the money. Also the vibes are great for a summer night.