One morning in July, it was said that a new Actress album, 88, was available. All you had to do was solve a crossword puzzle and jump a few digital hoops. As someone who struggles with crossword clues — and without a Twitter account at the time — I scanned the sphere, with “Sign Up” prompts blocking my way, in need of an answer to the riddle. In the end, as told by a random Twitter user, it was the title of the then upcoming album from UK sorcerer, Actress.
The 88 download-only mixtape was a welcome surprise from the master of vibrant, catchy, emotional experiments. 88 is a B-side collection of value, even for any casual listener, and in my ignorance, I believed I was satiated. But three years since AZD, the last straight Actress record, an irresistible and evolved new album has come, Karma & Desire.
The Mercury-Prize winning vocals from the exceedingly slick Sampha have been given up to Actress’s abstract instincts. The work that is created at the hands of these two artists is an expansion of their separate worlds, now crossing paths into territories I imagine no listener knew they wanted.
The Sampha collaborations bring the silent film-era imagery into focus, but Zsela’s whispers in “Angel’s Pharmacy” and “Remembrance,” with the image of Actress bent over his machines, wearily committed, paint vividly a mad scientist at work. As part of an album brimming with avant-garde bangers, the ballad “Many Seas, Many Rivers” is a trademark trudge across a swamp of television static. As the tempo repeatedly tries to find its footing, Sampha limps out of the mist like The Golem — part AI, part clay.
Like a majority of Darren J. Cunningham’s releases (speaking not just of the Actress moniker), Karma & Desire is a style shock, even if his entire output, whether he intends it or not, is evidently drawn by the hand of a single calligrapher. In retrospect, this is evident even if you take the house deconstruction “Crushed” from the seminal debut Hazyville, released in 2008, and compare it to the chopped and screwed horror trap of “Contagion” on Ghettoville (2014).
The main shock of Karma & Desire is the acoustic pianos, bathed in reverb, and how they fit so easily with Actress’ tripping-in-slow-motion rhythms, or with his glitchy workouts. He has used the instrument before — such as on his AI project, Young Paint — but this time round, as described by the artist himself, the effect is truly “a romantic tragedy set between the heavens and the underworld.”
But even if you do desire some classic machine warping, “Loose” and the 88-second “Fret” are hefty diversions from the acoustic players. Suitably placed after the solid piano piece “Public Life” (in collaboration with Italian pianist Vanessa Benelli Mosell), “Fret” sounds as if the album has unwittingly downloaded a bug and is trying to fix itself.
Considering that Cunningham’s music sometimes sounds like the ghosts of more traditional songs, the penultimate track “Turin” is a pure winter anthem. It conjures those now nostalgic trips: lining-up outside clubs in the icy cold, and feeling the ground rumbling under your feet, promising heat. On Karma & Desire, it’s a delight hearing Actress — always drawn to abstract shapes and colours — being so openly romantic.
Mark Seneviratne (@sene_mark) is a data analyst for an arts funding organisation and is based in Manchester, UK. He also writes for The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry, and will have a short story published for the first time in Not One of Us come October 2020. At university, he thought having a Michael Haneke poster made him edgy.