Album Review: Actress – Karma & Desire

[Ninja Tune; 2020]

The human voice in music is widely regarded as an instrument of sentiment. It can evoke sadness, fury or elation – but reality usually doesn’t evoke just the cast-iron, cookie cutter varieties of feeling, as much as our brains like to give in to them. Karma & Desire, the new album by electronic producer Actress – real name Darren Cunningham – takes special interest in how the human voice operates within the producer’s own unique school of thought.

Like the alchemists of the old who gathered around the Philosopher’s stone, Cunningham releases music with an iconoclast disposition. His process, however, doesn’t revolve around producing tracks with meticulous all-encompassing design. His mission with his vehicle, Actress, is pretty similar to Starfleet: to seek out those elusive unknowns curiously and altruistically. In the business that is bad news, there seems to be peak paranoia on the negative effects of technology, with phenomena like deep faking and personalized advertising obfuscating our concepts of identity, culpability and materialism.

Over the past few years, however, Cunningham has put a wholly positive spin on the ever-present influence of artificial intelligence, actively courting its myriad possibilities. On his previous album, AZD, he even gave his A.I. program Young Paint a level of autonomy within the compositions. Taking a big step back and watching music unfold like a natural ecosystem is a nice deviation from the hands-on approach of many of the UK producer’s peers. Like a kid in a storage facility of Legos, Actress seems to wield music like an elemental source that exists in continuum – matter that can be built, reshaped or broken down again. For example, he once even transmuted graffiti (!) into sound. Even when watching some of his performances, it often strikes as if the chaotic noises of the everyday suddenly turn sentient and participate into a musical composition. There’s almost a cartoonish naïveté to it all.

For the premise of Karma & Desire, Cunningham was rather cryptic in the album’s outline: “A romantic tragedy set between the heavens and the underworld.” It’s a bit of a brain twister, but I reckon that’s the whole point. The record features an impressive range of collaborators, including experimental soul crooners Sampha and Zsela (who released the excellent EP Ache Of Victory earlier this year), plus fellow producer Aura T-09.

The two tracks featuring Zsela – “Angel’s Pharmacy” and “Remembrance” – provide an early highlight on Karma & Desire. These tracks seem to work in tandem to tell a complete story: the former is a steamy, sensual piece of music. Zsela forgoes her usual evocative singing voice for a passionate spoken-word delivery that rings like sweet nothings. “Destiny is stuck in heaven blowing nitro” is one of mantras leaving her lips, as hissing sonics resonate like broken pipes leaking gas. Meanwhile, “Remembrance” appears to act as the comedown, with drones acting like crickets in a field while synths ebb and flow in tranquil fashion. Again, Zsela doesn’t stray from her plainly spoken voice, letting the words themselves imbue intrinsic weight.

Going back to the earlier notion of the human voice as an evocative agent: almost every vocal performance on Karma & Desire circumvents distinguishable emotional beats. When you read ‘piano-based’ and ‘Sampha’, you expect to be either serenaded or hit right in the feels, but “VVY” is definitely a different beast, using those elements very intrusively and abstractly. Sampha’s voice is applied in a similar fashion to what Arca did on her self-titled LP: highly intense, but stripped from any discernible human emotion. “VVY” is likewise very eerie and unsettling; the piano coda seems to be stuck in a fixed pattern, whereas the voice haunts it like a spectral presence stuck in purgatory.

Another Sampha-featuring track, “Many Seas, Many Rivers”, lumbers on with a similarly creeping tension; I was reminded of Low’s masterpiece Double Negative here, particularly the way it deliberately sounds like a fractured transmission. It’s a song that yearns to express but has forgotten how, eventually succumbing to the futility of it all. Bringing in Sampha – widely known for writing achingly beautiful confessionals – seems to make an intrinsic point. The same could be said for Aura T-09: the aptly-titled “Loveless” both flirts with and stays at odds of its own 90s house template, tossing a strange processed vocal sample into the mix, unnerving just enough to dissuade total transcendence.

The bizarro-techno of “Turin” and UK garage-mutation “Leaves In The Sky” likewise juxtapose thrusting beats and meditative melodic sequences. It’s the type of music that channels those ambivalent stretches of thought that seem all too common during these dire days: different impulses and anxieties fighting for control over the body, and while doing so, sustaining this numbed, passive state of being.

Indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to expect anything that shamelessly abides to all the brain’s pleasure zones out of Actress. For an artist who employs his own sonic wanderlust as an overriding facet, Cunningham makes concentrated effort to channel human sentiments that aren’t codified within pop music, delineating our deep complexities with incisive, candid fortitude. Rare moments of unblemished reprieve, like the crystalline “Public Life” (starring pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell) and the Sampha-sung closing track “Walking Flames”, suggest the strange thrills of not being in control of a body that’s actually a well-oiled organic machine. By accepting the chaotic elements coexisting alongside our stark self-made structures – be it tangible, psychological or virtual – Karma & Desire might be the most honest form of pop music one can make at this moment.