Ahead of his appearance at this year’s CTM Festival, Ruth Saxelby sifts through the British producer’s fourth—and perhaps final—album, celebrating its shades of grey.
Liminality has long been central to Darren Cunningham’s work as Actress. It creeps into his music—be it echoes of the dancefloor’s ritual consciousness, the ambiguity of memory or historical veneration of an afterlife—and it is often what he is celebrated for: music as meditation, as medicine.
On Ghettoville, his fourth and perhaps final album as Actress, he fixes his gaze to the outside within: liminality as both lived experience and imposed identity. Where last year’s R.I.P riffed on its titular theme, Ghettoville churns chaotically to the cyclic and often alienating beat of inner city life. It is not a future he looks into but an exhausted present. Rest and peace are but pit stops in the industrious landscape Cunningham envisions on the self-described sequel to his 2008 debut, Hazyville.
Insinuation aside, it’s hard not to equate the meat of Ghettoville with the demands of the daily grind. There is a treadmill quality to “Contagious”: its oppressive rhythm and obscured yawning vocal makes for uncomfortable but compelling car-crash listening. The blunt kick-drum and crosshatch texture of “Skyline” evokes the blinkered vision that the produce/consume merry-go-round of modern life dictates. As if to hammer home the inevitable result of such ceaseless one-note activity, “Frontline” rumbles into a cul-de-sac of sweat stains and salt-crust tear tracks.
Underlining a growing sense of outsider-ness, much of the album plays out as if half-hidden behind a closed door. “Street Corp”, one of the most satisfying moments on Ghettoville, conceals an enchanting melody behind a wall of dusty, skipping static. “Towers” plays with perspective, running wistful pastel tones behind the belch of a domineering synth stabbed at will. Bubbling and whistling like a boiling kettle, “Rims” evokes the sense of getting lost down the corridors of conversation, when you get so far into a concept that you can’t see the edges anymore.
While techno is an established foundation for Cunningham, the latter half of Ghettoville pulls a surprising power move in twisting eighties soul pop and R&B into the album’s brighter moments. “Image” shimmies seductively, aching for the late Gwen Guthrie’s lusty strain to berate a lover to get “a j-o-b if you wanna be with me.” Similarly, “Rap” slides into slow jam territory—distant sax and all—with its languid, “wrap yourself around me,” refrain. The xylophone on the ballroom-skirting “Rule” is a joyful addition. And is that Rihanna being squeezed through a digital sluice singing, “don’t stop the music,” on “Don’t”? Probably not but it’s likely the association is deliberate. “Everything in music is instantly consumed and then you move pretty much swiftly onto the next thing,” Cunningham told me in an interview for Dazed & Confused last summer. “An album can be big for a couple of weeks and then completely disappear. You wouldn’t even realize it had happened, y’know?” The music machine, like the rest of modern life in these gloomy late capitalism days, churns on regardless.
There is a lot going on on Ghettoville but to back-pedal for just a moment, it’s impossible to ignore the big perhaps that hangs over the album—the one Cunningham was probably hinting at last summer. “Ghettoville is the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” read the album notes. Is Ghettoville really Cunningham’s final salute to his current incarnation? Who knows. Either way, his legacy colors the listening experience. Cunningham can do bangers (“Maze”) and he can do silence (R.I.P), but it is the space in-between that has always interested him most. On Ghettoville, he crystallizes common sense into something visceral and felt: the grind needs release and release needs grind. It is fertile if occasionally uneven territory. The labored house loop of “Gaze” grates but the aforementioned “Street Corp”, gentle stutter of “Our” and drone-y opener “Forgiven” are amongst his best work. Actress is dead? Long live Actress. ~