PORTUGAL/UK: 1986 - Benjamim & Barnaby Keen
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Electronic music with several twists, this album takes the listener on a journey into the diverse musical stylings of its creators
Portuguese musician Benjamim and British electronic music producer Barnaby Keen look determined on the cover art of their 2017 collaborative album 1986, named as such because it is the birth year of both musicians. Benjamim is the one on the left looking a bit like a cross between Jack Black and Mark Ruffalo, and Barnaby Keen is on the right, with his yellow beanie and starkly serious expression making him seem like a fisherman who has seen the heart of darkness out on a trawler in the midst of a moonless night. This relatively threadbare and ponderous cover belies an album that is really quite fun and frothy in many ways, with both musicians taking their respective skills and strengths and using those to make an electronic record with retro flourishes. The album has eight songs, and is evenly divided into four English songs where Keen takes the vocal lead, and four Portuguese songs where Benjamim provides the vocals. The bilingualism is one key distinguishing feature of the album. Records that repurpose retro styles and sounds are ten a penny, and while this is a particularly good one, the mix of English and Portuguese allows the album to occupy its own space within the genre.
“What Benjamim and Keen have done is to create a musical experience that is a confluence of both of their respective manners of making music, and as such it seems like a true collaborative effort...”
The album kicks off with Warm Blood, beginning with what sounds like a jaw harp, before a lively and bouncy bassline dominates proceedings, underlain with a sprightly backbeat, giving the song a garage rock feel akin to The Black Keys, albeit with less guitar-focussed riffage. It is an excellent opener to the album, and it is maybe my favourite song on the album. Then we go into the first Portuguese-language track (the album alternates between languages), which has a completely different feel to it. The drums are more Latin, and the acoustic guitar is a marked change from the previous song. All I Want appears to demonstrate an ambition to emulate 1970s pop rock, which it pulls off successfully, reminding me of bands like Redbone, while Disparar, the final track is like a folk ballad, with beautiful finger-picked acoustic guitar accompanying Benjamim’s soft, gravelly vocals. Diary, Madrugada, and Nothing Else are all great electro tunes that one could imagine being played at a club night. Madrugada is a particularly strong tune, with a synthesiser riff that is evocative of the early 1980’s, and its whimsical and joyous tone make it a strong rival with Warm Blood for my favourite song.
However, while Benjamim and Keen have magpie-like scoured the previous decades for musical motifs they can incorporate into their album, every song is distinctive enough that it never falls into either pastiche or mere 'cover band' copying. The two musicians have found a particular niche that allows for the album to be seen as an electronic album, even though a few tracks are mostly acoustic, and even on those acoustic tracks there are elements of electronic instruments flittering in and out. Conversely, songs such as Warm Blood and Terra Firme mix the two, so the sound is at once familiar and different, chameleonic in its shifting of styles. As an album, it works nicely as a piece, but its varied nature inevitably allows for it to be listened in any order and enjoyed just as much. What Benjamim and Keen have done is to create a musical experience that is a confluence of both of their respective manners of making music, and as such it seems like a true collaborative effort, even if some songs seem more like products of one than the other. Nevertheless, 1986 is an entertaining album that is well worth your time, and with its wide gamut of musical offerings, you won’t be stuck for choice.