In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing
Over three albums and a handful of singles, EPs, and remixes, British electronic musician Darren Cunningham has made being obfuscating into his most recognizable aesthetic. The title of his first release as Actress, 2008’s Hazyville, might as well have been the name of the imaginary city whose daily goings-on he would spend the next several years soundtracking. It’s a decaying burg choked by industrial grime and full of aimless, despondent citizens who occasionally slip into reverie about the R&B and techno songs of their youth, only to have them slide away again into rapidly fading memory. Cunningham once called his stuff “R&B concrète,” and it worked as both a clever catchall for the sounds of successive albums Splazsh and R.I.P.—where old hip-hop and techno rhythms were dissected from an academic remove, like the found-sound field recordings of some lost tribe—and as a blunt descriptor. Actress’ stuff often sounds like late-’80s/early-’90s R&B buried under 10 feet of stone.
On his fourth—and, if Cunningham’s hints about retiring the moniker are to be believed—final Actress album, Ghettoville, he’s ostensibly come full circle, billing the record as a “sequel” to Hazyville and “the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image.” Taking him at his word, it seems Hazyville has fallen on some rather hard times in its slow slide into Ghettoville. Cunningham has said in interviews that “homeless people” and “drug addicts” inspired the album. The press release dabbles in morbid teenager poetry like, “The world has returned to a flattened state, and out through that window, the birds look back into the cage they once inhabited.” It also says it catches “the artist slumped and reclined, devoid of any soul.” In other words, there are now a lot of cracks in that concrete, and a lot of crackheads dying on it.
Yet, while most of the first half of Ghettoville unfolds over a cold, urban blight that anyone currently spending the winter buried under snow can relate to (I feel like the murky, hopeless grind of opener “Forgiven” has been playing in my head for the past two months), the back half still finds a few distant dance floor memories flowering in the muck. After nine tracks of steam hiss and mechanical stomps, Ghettoville begins to look up with “Gaze,” a song that sounds like a still-raging, early-’90s rave being unearthed from decades of rubble.
As the three-blocks-over thud of a minimal house beat—complete with vintage cowbell and “Uh!” vocal hits—slowly rises from the sonic murk, it’s joined by synths that swell, at first hesitantly then insistently, before everything finally finds its old, joyous groove again. (Listening to it, I imagine the citizens of Ghettoville walking past the dilapidated C+C Music Factory, which they shuttered after too many workers died, whispering that they hear it’s haunted. They say on some nights, you can still hear everybody dancing now.) Later tracks “Rap” and “Rule,” with their looped, elongated R&B and hip-hop samples, are the more immediate earworms, but if this album is really Actress’ goodbye, then “Gaze” is the more fitting final statement. It’s a melancholy, thoughtful look back at a genre built on shallow good times—and if Cunningham has really had enough of it, I’m anxious to see what he decides to deconstruct next.