We’re living in an age of jazz revival. While the genre never disappeared – especially for those most engaged with it – it has had a more than notable resurgence in the popular sphere over the last few years. We’ve had epic crossover records in genres spanning from hip hop to electronic to ambient (from Kendrick Lamar, Noname, Anderson .Paak, Floating Points, Leon Vynehall, to name a few), nor is there any shortage of exciting new British names who identify more explicitly with the ‘jazz’ epithet (Yussef Dayes, Kamaal Williams, Zara McFarlane, Ezra Collective, Sons of Kemet, Moses Boyd). And so, The Cinematic Orchestra, 90s/00s jazz-electronic (or for the taxonomists out there, ‘nu jazz’) pioneers, have now released their first studio album in 12 years into a flourishing musical landscape that they played a significant role in shaping.

To Believe, technically the group’s fourth full-length (not counting their excellent 2003 soundtrack The Man with a Movie Camera), is 7 tracks long, has a total run time of close to 54 minutes, and includes five vocal features from talents such as experimental soul singer-songwriter Moses Sumney and longtime Cinematic Orchestra collaborator Roots Manuva. This template has been a fruitful one for the group; 2007’s Ma Fleur and 2002’s Every Day both had expertly-placed feature performances across similar runtimes.

The foundations for a great record from the group (now led by core duo Jason Swinscoe and Dominic Smith) would all seem to have been in place. Yet, there is clear development here too. On To Believe, it feels like the group are making a notable step away from the jazz elements they had explored in their 2000s output, offering instead string heavy pieces with definitive pop crossover appeal, decorated with their signature polyphonic and electronic textures. And yet, despite all of this, while To Believe certainly has some powerful moments, there are also numerous moments that are superfluous and forgettable.

‘To Believe’, the opening title track featuring Moses Sumney, sees this dynamic play out even within a song. At about the four-minute mark, the song crescendos into a beautiful, aching menagerie of Sumney’s desperate vocals, which are layered upon themselves, and then wrapped in one delicate string melody after another. But aside from Sumney’s performance, the first few minutes of the song do little to hold interest. The acoustic guitar and piano that provide the backbone for the first half of the song feel uninspired, little more than a structure for Sumney’s melody up until the stellar ending. This becomes even more apparent when returning to their back catalogue – compare, for example, the opening few minutes of ‘To Believe’ with the wildly emotive piano in Ma Fleur’s stunning opener, ‘To Build a Home’.

This inconsistency pans out across the record as a whole. ‘A Caged Bird/Imitations of Life’ is a pensive, mechanical churn that brings together the best elements of the band’s electronic and jazz sensibilities with a brilliant vocal performance from Roots Manuva (one that urges a revisit of his laudable 2000s discography). Unlike some of the other tracks here, this one sticks its landing because the group so effectively leverage their talents in arrangement and electronic textures in combination with refined songwriting that doesn’t drag to accentuate its point. ‘Wait for Now/Leave the World’, on the other hand, stretches over seven minutes to offer agreeable textures and orchestral arrangements, but nothing particularly substantial in the way of songwriting. It leaves one wishing that the group had turned to their experimental, jazz-oriented approaches to find the heart of the song and give their arrangements more purpose. One of the most exhilarating aspects of The Cinematic Orchestra’s output has always been their ability to make the unconventional the heart of their music – be it the drums, a squelched-out synthesiser, or saxophone. That component is far less present on this outing; those elements are dropped in favour of upfront vocal performances or string arrangements.

‘The Workers of Art’, for instance, is a six-minute orchestral piece that is pleasant but largely forgettable. ‘A Promise’ often struggles to justify its 11-and-a-half-minute runtime. It exhibits some admirable orchestra work and arrangements at first, but the heart of the song is not particularly interesting. Even the drum break that kicks into gear in the track’s final third starts to feel superfluous, because the song has been repeating the same motif for a number of minutes by the time it begins. ‘Lessons’, however, makes a worthy effort of bringing the album’s orchestrally heavy sound to bear on a nine-minute instrumental piece. Grounded by a soukous rhythm fused with a marching band snare pattern, the song features a healthy dose of the technical subtleties that The Cinematic Orchestra have always handled so well. As with ‘A Promise’, it suffers from too much unjustified repetition, but the instrumental performances themselves have more vigour and keep me captivated.

To Believe is a musically restrained record. The lyrics are equally so, often consisting of ambiguous and enigmatic reflections on identity, belief and uncertainty. That is by no means a drawback; however, their vague character is too often mirrored in the music. It wouldn’t be surprising if that was conceptually intentional – which would be admirable – but it made for less exciting listening. Contemplative, meticulously arranged and largely orchestral, To Believe eschews the distinctly jazz elements of the ‘jazztronica’ that The Cinematic Orchestra pioneered across their first three albums. At a time when jazz is having such an exciting moment, it’s a surprising move from the band. The result is a mixed bag of songs with which the group continue to earn their moniker, through moody orchestral pop pieces adorned with the group’s signature electronics, but we’re left wondering whether the soundtrack might have been more interesting.