With its third album, London trio Morcheeba undercuts its importance as a trip-hop band by meandering too far afield. Moving beyond the narrow confines of any genre is all well and good, just as long as you don't forget where you came from. Missing for the most part on Fragments of Freedom are the slow-burn scratching, sophisticated funk, and thought-provoking lyrics of the group's spectacular debut, 1996's Who Can You Trust? Perhaps viewing trip-hop as a dead end, the group began moving away from those elements on 1998's Big Calm, which retained dance rhythms but laid over them a wider range of styles, including reggae, jazz, even the occasional countryish flourish.
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This catchall formula comes to the fore again on Fragments, leaving trip-hop lovers out in the cold while delivering some undeniably catchy (if facile) pop in the process. Singer Skye Edwards' soaring vocals are still a thing of beauty, and the musicianship is as strong as ever, so it's not overall quality that's missing here, it's depth. You can't fault the band for frontin', though, as Edwards virtually admits as much on "Shallow End." Cascading disco synths, cheesy whaka-whaka guitar, and rubber-band bass propel sentiments such as, "I'm through feeling deeply/Let's dive into the shallow end...."
For the most part, the album's lyrics live up to this promise, but several strong musical moments save it from total frivolity. Deep, throbbing piano chords and subdued scat vocals open the album on "World Looking In" before Edwards retreats into breathy asides -- "Don't stop just yet, we've got the world looking in our window" -- on the chorus.
There's some cooing prettiness on the intro to the pure-pop "Rome Wasn't Built in a Day," but the treacle is too thick and the lyrics are too trite to provide much redeeming value. "Love Is Rare" doesn't offer much hope either, though the deep-funk groove, complete with wavering R&B keys and trumpet blasts, is undeniably strong. More horns and a Cars-esque, new-wave keyboard squeal shore up the fine "Let It Go."
Fragments' hip-hopinflected cuts are its strongest. "Love Sweet Love" features silky-smooth scratching plus rapping by Mr. Complex, while Biz Markie delivers a growling, stuttering rap on "In the Hands of the Gods." The album finishes with the title track, perhaps its trip-hoppiest cut. It's a strong return to form, but in terms of the dark, moody atmospherics associated with the trip-hop sound, Morcheeba is no longer a prime provider.