#1757 – Actress – R.I.P.
(CD, 2012) (Discogs tracklisting)
I’ve groaned at some of these selections: oh, must I listen to this and dredge up something to say? Not so with this one, which gave me a great deal of pleasure four years ago, and so excited me with the prospect of getting reacquainted.
Although abstract and instrumental, R.I.P. was never background music. I always gave it, if not full attention, as close to full attention as my flittering brain would allow. There were places where it worked best. In the car, I felt enveloped by its strange and unique sonic textures; there’s a distinct memory of hearing “Holy Water”, and feeling as if the interior was slowly being filled, water trickling and oozing in from right and left. In the cottage, where the same player was wired to three sets of speakers in three adjoining rooms, I preferred the smaller middle room, facing the garden. Here, the details came into clearer focus. Again, there was that remarkable three-dimensional effect, casting each track as a sculpture that I could examine from all angles.
I’ve been playing these records and CDs in the office below street level, where the turntable and laptop live. This time I moved upstairs, to use the same sound system that we brought from the cottage. The room, which looks out over the railway station, is rarely used during the day. I pre-warmed it and settled in, on the comfiest seating in the house. It’s the best room to listen closely to CDs. I should use it more.
Actress is the working name of Darren Cunningham, a British electronic artist who initially found favour with a more dance-angled sound. With this, his third of four albums to date, he moved away from beatmaking; only three of its fifteen tracks have any kind of pronounced backbeat, and you wouldn’t think to dance to any of them. Consequently, he fell out of favour with some of his previous admirers, who were left cold by the abstraction, and by the absence of much in the way of forward movement within each track. Typically, patterns are set in motion and left to hang there, with only subtle variations, or next to none.
I understand the frustration, but I don’t share it. By paring down the shifts, Cunningham has given the listener space to dig right into the inner workings of his constructions. As I say, it’s like looking at sculptures in a gallery. You have to cross that line between first, fleeting impressions and the deeper appreciation which only emerges when you give the pieces time, thought and concentrated focus. But many still won’t click, and that’s also fine.
The album’s narrative arc is reportedly inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the track titles bear this out: Jardin, Serpent, Tree Of Knowledge. You don’t have to pay attention to this, but if you do – and today, I did so for the first time – it can unlock an extra dimension. Milton’s framing of the Adam and Eve story extends further than the basic Old Testament text, casting back to Satan’s banishment from Heaven and reaching forward to an angelic revelation to a fallen Adam, showing him what lay ahead: the great flood, a hint of the Second Coming.
This helps to explain why the album starts in such a dank, murky fashion – casual dippers-in might never make it past the first few tracks – before introducing different moods and textures. Jardin marks a big shift, as we exit the warring cosmos and find ourselves in an earthly paradise. Or is it? The initially charming pastoral mood is extended so far – it’s the longest track on the album – that it starts to cloy and pall, suggesting that in the absence of wisdom, naivety is no place to be forever stuck.
There is no big, dramatic “and lo, the Lord did banish the wretched pair from Eden” moment here. We skip past its expected place, to Adam’s vision of Noah’s raven being sent from the ark, to see whether the floods were subsiding. It’s a vignette of hope. And by the penultimate track, N.E.W. – a beatific swirl, like a fugue of melted church organs – there’s a sense that the so-called Fall of Man has instead led us to a place of greater enlightenment. Or, if you want to skip all the chewy stuff, there’s at least a realisation that you have travelled from darkness into light.
That’s a hell of a lot of potential meaning to extract from nearly an hour’s worth of glitchy, uneasy and peculiar instrumental electronica, which many would dismiss out of hand as boring, weird, discomforting or difficult. As for me, I found returning to this album absorbing, thought-provoking and uplifting. I got stuff out of it that I’d never got out of it before. It’s days like these that make writing this series feel justified.