The Moment Doesn't End
Brian Eno and Fred again.. narrating.
Brian Eno’s genius is unassailable by now. Everyone knows that this is a man who, quite without regard for any supposed convention, does what he wants with whatever recorded sound strikes his fancy and frequently manages to turn it into something transcendent. So when he calls another soundsmith a genius, one takes notice. Enter record producer Fred again..
Looking through the latter’s resume, it’s surprising that Fred again.. should get this kind of praise from Eno. Much of Fred’s most recognized work has been with the likes of Rita Ora and Demi Lovato. Not exactly the most commonsense collaborator for the father of modern ambient music. But then, anyone who leaves it at this is ignoring that Eno has also produced for Coldplay, Toto, and U2. If Eno contains multitudes, then why not Fred?
It should be mentioned that the 30-year-old Fred and 75-year-old Eno have a prior relationship, going back almost fifteen years. A 16-year-old Fred Gibson’s parents were in fact neighbors with Eno at the time, and the young Fred ended up joining an a capella group at Eno’s studio. He later also collaborated with Eno and Underworld’s Karl Hyde on the albums Someday World and High Life.
So here we are. Brian Eno and Fred Again.. released Secret Life in early May, and it is one of the most enigmatic works I’ve encountered in some time. If Protomartyr’s Formal Growth In the Desert was the aggressive album I kept returning to all summer, a distillation of the coming seasons’ anxiety and pessimism, then Secret Life was the counterweight, providing something like solace and comfort.
The album was compiled, composed, and recorded slowly, over a relatively long period of time: “4th April 2020 - 23rd December 2022” say the credits. We know the mass global event that these dates roughly bookend. Pandemic, lockdowns, large swathes of daily life made inaccessible, off and on, up until around the end of last year. (It would be irresponsible to say last December is when the pandemic “ended” or “things went back to normal,” which we’ll touch on later.)
We all remember that feeling of everything simultaneously grinding to a halt and speeding to an uncontrollable whirlwind. Where, either permanently holed up in our homes or having our existence shrunk down to nothing more than home and work, we watched as events spun in myriad directions and tried to maintain sanity amid news of sick loved ones, even as, outside our window, everything had taken on an eerie stillness. Everything was quiet and deafening. We all remember feeling that we were losing something, though not fully grasping what.
Fred evidently took this amorphous feeling seriously. Secret Life should be considered a companion piece to the three Actual Life albums he released from 2020 to 2022. These were impressive EDM albums, capturing both the exciting energy of city life and the strange intimacy of isolation. If someone were looking for a musical work that effectively mapped the peculiar experience of disconnection-induced panic and sorrow that descended on us during lockdown, they could do a lot worse than the Actual Life albums. The uninitiated will also get a good sense of Fred’s particular expressive modes as a composer.
Secret Life lowers the energy. Musically, it is very much a downtempo album. It is also very minimalist. Most chord progressions – normally rendered on keyboard – are simple and repetitive. The album is 44 minutes long, but after being drawn into its soft, undulating rhythms, its delayed and reverbed keys and faint echoes, you emerge wondering how much – or how little – time has passed.
In vocals of opening track “I Saw You,” emphasize this feeling of being stuck in a flash-brief moment that somehow won’t end. Frequently they are treated like instruments themselves, brief phrases looped and repeated, as if the speaker is quietly trapped in their own mind, whispering panic because they know there’s no way out, no way to protect themself or others.
Can’t shake this… this… this… can’t shake this… please be okay… please… please… please… you were real… real… real… real… (mind… mind…) please… please… please be okay… kay… kay… can't face this… can't face this… face this… face… face this… face this… face this… face this… face this…
The vocals, normally provided by Fred, often have a kind of alt-pop lilt to them. They are also often manipulated, filtered through delay or surrounded by static. As if something from the previous decade is calling over to us.
It’s not just nostalgia, or even something as broad as longing. At their most extreme, these processed and re-processed vocals sound eerily inhuman, similar to early Burial or Tricky. As if, in trying to persist past its appointed existence, the specific point in time is turned into something else entirely.
“Don’t you even think of giving up,” sings a spectral, digital voice on “Enough,” a sparse brassy keyboard part playing in the background. The voice repeats it, in various iterations, over and over. Twice, the song’s structures deteriorate and break down, at least once giving way to joyous, distinctly human laughter, before it is abruptly cut off.
In “Cmon,” a similar voice intersperses over ethereal synths and a light, tapping beat. Once again, the voice has been heavily processed and manipulated. There aren’t even any discernable words, nor anything else to mark it as human. Except, that is, for the longing, plaintive and unmistakable.
In “Ghosts of My Life,” his long, winding essay on the music of Goldie, Japan, and Tricky (included in the book of the same name), Mark Fisher dissects the temporal frictions of these artists’ work. Though all three artists are notably different, all seem to be identifying a generalized social unmooring, an estrangement sonically manifested across different post-70s moments.
For Goldie, in particular his work with Rufige Kru, it was cyberpunk-esque soundscapes, populated by voices and noises stripped of their humanness. For Japan, it was a melancholy artificiality, best personified in David Sylvian’s highly trained, almost plastic vocal work. For Tricky, it was a perpetual outsiderness, an identification with the alien captured in his raspy, mumbly delivery. All were, in their distinct ways, the neoliberal subject cut adrift, speaking from somewhere that is nowhere. The essay is, understandably, a cornerstone of Fisher’s particular notion of hauntology.
One hears the same thing in the echoes and quasi-human longing in Secret Life. There’s no doubt that this is a profoundly hauntological album. But while the artists Fisher examines are all navigating a lonely crowd of sorts, grasping for something that might link the individuals together into a renewed cosmopolitanism, Eno and Fred appear to be sketching a markedly different kind of melancholy. In some ways, it is that of ultimate separation, when we were all denied even the option of wading through the muck to connect with each other. Isolate us for long enough, and we start to wonder if we even have a solid metric to determine whether we are still human.
What most of us fell back on, indeed, had no choice but to fall back on, was our internal lives. Our thoughts and the possibilities that emerged from them. Many of us didn’t really know that we had such rich internal lives until separation and boredom forced us to regard them. The feverish pace of living and working and trying to survive really hasn’t let us. At the same time, all there was to think about was the looming uncertainty. The devastations that seemed to never end, marking themselves apart from the delicate scenes we discovered in our imaginations, biding their time until they could completely overtake us.
Whether we can call the eerie melancholy and extreme isolation of lockdown a new phase in the alienations of late capitalism is hard to tell at this point. It’s true that most governments aren’t operating on what we could call a strict neoliberal model any longer. Most, be they led by the desiccating center or the far-right, are imposing a stronger guiding hand back on the so-called free market. If this translates into a difference in subjectivity — collective or individual — we haven’t really noticed it yet.
If anything, there’s been an undeniable struggle to reconnect since things “opened up.” Partly because the few meager social welfare programs that popped up during lockdown, which might have provided a sense of stability and social space, have been more or less eliminated. Tragically, our more resilient and imaginative “post-Covid” selves would make for stronger bonds and visions of the future. If only we had the room to forge them.
It is also worth remembering that Covid has not in fact gone away. In fact, cases are climbing again, and with nothing to cushion the blow from the havoc it will bring to our lives. Again, the hope for connection is thwarted. It is unlikely that things will get quite as bad as they were in 2020, but again, this is hard to tell. Indeed, the “hard to tell” is part of the anxiety and frustration that continues to break down social cohesion. In this respect, severe diseases and pandemics are almost incidental to the broader ill.
The cover for Secret Life shows a scene probably familiar to many of us. It is night in London, and a small group of people look down from Hampstead Heath. Some of them know each other. Others seem drawn to reach out, communicate, though something, a staticky malaise in the air, prevents them from doing so.
But the city below glows in the night sky. Countless windows are lit up, each one representing a human being who flipped the switch. They are in there, working, cooking, reading, watching television, scrolling on their phone, sleeping, laughing, weeping, hoping, grieving. We are there, waiting to connect. We even have an inkling of what connection once felt like.
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