Album Reviews

SBTRKT – The Rat Road

(AWAL) UK release date: 5 May 2023

Aaron Jerome has made an accurate reflection of modern life, but it lifts far above the routine, providing an insightful and emotive soundtrack

SBTRKT - The Rat Road In the six years that have elapsed since his last album, Aaron Jerome has done a lot of thinking. The South London producer, better known to us as SBTRKT, has been immersing himself in a wide range of styles, while paying close attention to trends within the music industry. This is the industry on which he was close to turning his back, but driven by the creative urge he returns with The Rat Road – which to all intents and purposes means ‘The Rat Race’.

The album is far from humdrum, however. Structured like an old school soul or R ‘n’ B album, it spans 22 tracks, some of them short interludes. Even the shortest musical diversion has a strong stamp of authenticity, Jerome able to turn his hand towards freewheeling jazz, anthemic, soul-driven pop, confidential urban asides and widescreen orchestration, some of the interludes turning towards the cinematic.

In the course of these musical twists and turns lie a number of mood swings. In these SBTRKT catches the essence of day-to-day human life, documenting rollercoaster emotions, constant notifications and short attention spans. Underwriting the whole work, however, is a positive and optimistic foundation. We see this in Waiting, which reveals the ambition of the album early on, the anthemic number given attitude from guest vocalist Teezo Touchdown. Days Go By backs this up, a far reaching utterance made through fuzzy production with a psychedelic edge, the ideal foil for Toro y Moi’s soulful vocals.

SBTRKT’s guests are well-chosen, a mix of established voices and promising new talent. Sampha brings rich insights to the excellent L.F.O. with George Riley, where the pair are complemented by flickering keyboards. “Heaven is so far away”, laments Riley, but pledges that “I’m here to stay”. Limitless finds Sampha is joined by Leilah, the two dovetailing in harmony against futuristic soul beats. She is the album’s unsung star, with a floated delivery that proves a great match for No Intention and Forward, then using hushed tones for the confidential Drift, the listener leaning in closer to catch her thoughts.

In terms of stylistic variety You, Love is especially striking, its syncopations breaking out in a blast of drum ‘n’ bass, while Demons is effectively a dream sequence with a calypso-like lilt. Yet SBTRKT never uses different forms for the sake of it, knitting each together for the greater good of the album as it becomes a succession of carefully set scenes.

In all truth 22 tracks is a few interludes too long for an album. Yet at the very least SBTRKT always has something interesting to say – even in the short, ethereal Saya Interlude late on. The Rat Road does indeed become an accurate reflection of modern life, but it lifts far above the routine, providing an insightful and emotive soundtrack for many who cross its path.

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More on SBTRKT
SBTRKT – The Rat Road
SBTRKT – Wonder Where We Land