The UK luminary drops his prettiest record to date.
This frustrating, tantalizing experience strikes me as a decent metaphor for Darren Cunningham's music. Over 12 years and six official albums, he's rearranged the elements of Detroit techno, '80s NYC rap and electro into singular hypnagogic vignettes that glide, gleam and then break apart just as you get a handle on them. Moments of pure melodic simplicity dissolve into tape hiss, distorted samples and street sounds. Actress has been equally interested in pushing listeners away as he is luring them in.
Karma & Desire bears the sonic touchstones of his landmark full-lengths like R.I.P. and AZD, but it also represents a profound shift in Cunningham's approach. For the first time, he's invited friends to help out. "I just wanted to give Actress a voice, basically, to use vocal performances from, like, a muse perspective really," he recently told Bandcamp Daily.
Despite several rave-worthy tracks voiced by the LA artist Aura T-09, this is not Actress's vocal house album, nor is it an album of pop songs. Instead, he utilizes the considerable vocal talents of artists like Zsela and Sampha in a signature Actress style, with snatches of stream-of-consciousness vocals rearranged into dreamlike sketches. The New York artist Zsela exhales "Destiny is stuck in heaven," on the burbling "Angels Pharmacy," before reprising the same theme on the very next track, "Remembrance." Just as hazy pads and white noise form motifs in Actress's catalogue, evocative phrases surface and resurface from the murk.
Cunningham also takes a more congenial turn with his production. More so than ever before, he lingers on gorgeous melodies. The mix of warm pads and cascading piano that announces "Reverend" could be some syrupy soul sample, though a Babel of barely decipherable voices enter the mix shortly thereafter, preventing things from feeling too cozy. Neoclassical piano is the album's primary instrument, from the arpeggiated, Knight Rider fantasia of "Save" to "Public Life," a reverb-laden solo piano piece starring Vanessa Benelli Mosell.
Kara-Lis Coverdale's flute line on the closing track "Walking Flames" feels like skipping through a spring meadow. Sampha's vocals take a similarly optimistic bent. "I'ma pray for mornings and open eyelids... These are like graphics that I've never seen/My face on another human being." Is this Actress's first love song, coming from the fractured perspective of an artist obsessed with AI? We'll probably never know. As usual, Karma & Desire is a sprawling, unpredictable maze of an album, but Actress is no longer a solitary figure navigating rain-streaked streets alone. He's invited others along to zigzag with him. The clouds have cleared and dawn might be on the way.
Tue / 27 Oct 2020
01. Fire And Light
02. Angels Pharmacy feat. Zsela
03. Remembrance feat. Zsela
05. Leaves Against The Sky
07. VVY feat. Sampha
09. Gliding Squares
10. Many Seas, Many Rivers feat. Sampha
11. Loveless feat. Aura T-09
12. Public Life feat. Vanessa Benelli Mosell
14. Loose feat. Christel Well
15. Turin feat. Aura T-09
16. Diamond X
17. Walking Flames feat. Sampha