Actress - Ghettoville
Posted on Wednesday, 29 January 2014 | No Comments
Of the various artists jumping on the recent bandwagon of the 'special edition' to try and actually make some money out of an ever-dwindling consumer base - a fan-fleecing, extra-pricey issue of your new album that sometimes rewards the investment with beautiful packaging and worthwhile extras like a reasonable amount of new and worthwhile material (the In Rainbows school) but sometimes just resorts to gimmicks to cover up the fact that you've been asked to pay far over the odds for exactly the same base mateials (The King of Limbs school) - Actress seems to have been one of the ones to have worked out the right balance of fan-pleasing to pocket-lining. The special boxset of Ghettoville, his fourth album, will set you back a cool £50 from the Ninja Tune shop (which is why, obviously, I won't be getting that version any time soon), but at least has the decency to give you the standard vinyl and CD album alongside a repress of hard-to-find debut Hazyville and a big bumper artbook and box to store it all in. It's also a record that seems an apt fit for this kind of middle-class, coffee table fetishism, because of the many things Darren Cunningham attempts on his latest album as Actress, it's a record that self-conciously sees itself as an art installation above anything else.
There's been plenty of laughter aimed at the absurd and pretentious press release that announced the album - "he world has returned to a flattened state, and out through that window, the birds look back into the cage they once inhabited" indeed - but there's a kernel of truth in it, beneath the layers of over-writing in it. Ghettoville is an album that once pushes Actress into new sonic space but also acts as a last curtain call, a final bow from the full cast he's been developing over the years before Cunningham moves onto something new. My reading of the album is one that is undoubtedly coloured by Cunningham's repeated declaration that this will be the final Actress album, but it still seems to me like much of the album is about tidying up and refining what he's done before and placing it in summary, a handy blurb and guide for those who then want to look around the rest of the exhibits. The album's cover makes far more sense in the flesh than it could on the screen: that it's just a standard white wrap around the abstract cover, it's a damn frame. How much more explicit to you want it to be?
This isn't to say that Cunningham is going to make it easy on you. Call it perversity or whatever you will, but Ghettoville casts the listener right into the emptiest, most abstract terrain of the Actress sound: if you can make it through the first side of the five vinyl sides of Ghettoville, it'll be easy sailing for you. After the expectancy and hype surrounding this release and the critical hallelujas that met Splazsh and R.I.P. on release, the slow and difficult opening brace of Forgiven and Street Corp. The dubstep and hip-hop inflections previously found in his work are almost entirely absent here. Forgiven is a slow, dirge-y seven minute crawl with maximum repetition and minimal change, where the only source of gravity comes from an eerie, dislocated guitar bass loop and a digitised, blurred hi-hat. It's dark and foreboding stuff, and Street Corp hardly lightens the mood R.I.P. moved away from the dancefloor into its own alien landscape, but this opening brace represents an even greater challenge, ripping the moorings and guidance away and leaving us to float in these deserted, brittle compositions.
From there however, the album swiftly picks up pace and opens up into something far more dynamic and exploratory. He's made great work earlier previously by twisting up genre conventions and commonplace sounds, but following the alien trajectory of the album's opening, when Ghettoville returns to earth none of it quite sounds the same. Rather than offering pastiches of common tropes, they're now thoroughly absorbed parts of the Actress sound, and his deployment of them here is the sound of these now yielding thoroughly to the Actress vision rather than being maniulated into it. The superb Rims makes use of a G-funk bass line, only pushing into such minimalistic realms that it becomes almost whimsical, the whistling synths that enter in the track's last two minutes adding some light to the typical dark hues of the Actress canvas whilst also moving it further and further away from its place of origin. Another standout, Time, feels like dubstep divested of all but its most faint outline, the bass line barely present and the percussion only splashing around the side to allow what would usually be subtle background flourishes to take centre stage. It's a fine example of what has become the Actress mode of production: inverting the expected space to come up with airy but monolithic constructions that move in a different direction to the rest of the production world, changing the expected order to come up with a whole new language with which to approach a common strategy. Again, the art analogy works well here - it's the sound of an artist using familar, staple tools and techniques but through application and arrangement coming up with a dramatically different treatment.
One notable development as the album streches towards its conclusion is the slow accumulation of (for Actress) surprisingly legible and easily understood vocal samples. The brief Don't is the kind of digital soul sample you'd expect to find interrupting a Burial track,, but here the sample is just repeated again and again, interrogating itself and providing a wry fourth-wall breaking comment towards the end of Cunningham's final album as Actress (for now). Rap marries a pitched down vocal to a peculiar kind of muzak-y R&B, slowly disorting and crumbling as it falls through the atmosphere and back into the concrete world of Ghettoville, while closing track Rule touches on footwork - you could almost mistake it for a DJ Rashad track until the beats and jazz flourishes notably fail to kick in - to mae for one of the most organic sounding tracks of his career, but again this too decays before suddenly sputtering to a halt. It's the sound of Cunningham drawing attention to the artificiality of not just his production, but of all the different strands of dance music operating out there. If the first half of Ghettoville is about finishing the mission that R.I.P. started, then the finale brings the stage crashing down and reveals the stage hands working away behind the actors.
Ghettoville stands as a demonstration of artistic technique, slowly piling on sounds and ideas already familiar to us but to build a very different picture to the one we would normally expect. If not operating in quite the same levels of academic abstraction as an Autechre, then Cunningham certainly works in a similar manner to a displayed artist working away in a post-post-modernist landscape, knowing the awareness of their audience but trying to use that awareness to wrong-foot and surprise them by moving away from the obvious. As an album, it may not be quite the full-on success that Splazsh or R.I.P. were, but it's still a stunningly realised conclusion to the Actress story, one that reconnects with the dancefloor and with hip-hop but to find it changed and distorted by the adventures that have happened along the way. Quite what Cunningham will or won't do from here is a mystery: perhaps Ghettoville's greatest triumph is that it closes off the loose threads but clears the way for a whole new narrative to emerge.