The real strengths here are less metaphorical than musical. Smith's last album, 2011's 4everevolution, lacked his prismatic charm, but Bleeds is a stonking return to form for the bass culture mixologist. In addition to "Facety 2:11"—a fidgety, footwork-esque production from Four Tet—and the two cold futuristic cuts from Switch's With You. outfit and Crookers ("Crying" and "One Thing"), Bleeds drops funk, soul, blues and even classical elements into the melting pot. It doesn't always fit together—some parts decidedly clash—but it's not supposed to be a slipstream experience. Bleeds is a jagged journey with purposeful peaks and troughs.
The album begins aggrieved and aggravated, thick with melodrama, but don't be too taken in. "It's just melodramatic for the hell of it," says Smith—something to remember when the moody mid-section ("Cargo", "Stepping Hard" and "Me Up!") arrives. Jest is everywhere on Bleeds, be it in the subtle poke of a crying baby sample on "Crying" or more blatantly, as in "Don't Breathe Out," a classic Roots Manuva jive with a poppy neo-soul streak courtesy of Barry White. It finally breaks down on "I Know Your Face," the most sincere track here. This one features classical virtuoso Max Richter, and it's his hand over the composition that turns those melodramatic strings in "Hard Bastards" into something more profound and poignant.
Even though the majority of Bleeds was overseen by Adrian Sherwood (together with a young producer named Fred), the fluctuations haven't been flattened, but rather allowed to flourish. It's evidence of symbiosis with Smith and the wonderful incongruences of his character. His personal stamp is all over the album's fractured makeup, its ambiguity and slippery resolve. Smith never went away exactly, but Bleeds feels like as storming comeback.