Actress telegraphed the intention for “Karma & Desire” in advance to make sure we were ready for it. He called his seventh studio album “a romantic tragedy set between the heavens and the underworld… love, death, technology and the questioning of one’s being.” By adding human voices to his signature style of textural haze and mid-tempo techno pulse, Darren Cunningham has evidently found a new sweet spot.
That’s a profound shift. From the beginning of the Actress myth on 2008’s “Hazyville”, past the crossover classics that were 2010’s “Splazsh” and 2012’s “R.I.P.”, and through a winding road of faux-career deaths, orchestral collaborations, chrome fascination and 48-minute long tracks, he has been defined by sepulchral qualities. Actress the artist seemed to exist in a permanently liminal state: a musical will-o’-the-wisp, glinting through the depths of night. He typically operated alone and preferred to articulate himself wordlessly.
Now, the fog has cleared. Those voices, tactile and vulnerable, make themselves known like never before. The soft light of a new dawn (possibly childbirth) glows across the album. Sampha’s indelible honeyed tones stand out clearly, singing the refrain of “These are like graphics that I’ve never seen / My face on another human being” at numerous junctures across the album, most strikingly on the Kara-Lis Coverdale–assisted ‘Walking Flames’ – “Karma & Desire”’s first single, and closing mantra.
Has Cunningham’s inscrutability melted? As he keeps cards tight up against his chest it’s hard to be sure, but the sprawl of styles across “Karma & Desire”’s 70-minute runtime would suggest so. For an artist whose career has been defined by monochromatic hues, there are splashes of colour all over the place. ‘Loveless’, featuring Aura T-09, is more or less an outright R&B / UK Garage hybrid, while ‘Diamond X’ knocks harder than any Actress song in a decade.
Even on a gently-ebbing number like ‘Gliding Squares’, which seems to call back directly to ‘Ascending’ and ‘N.E.W.’ –– the chokingly tender bookends of “R.I.P.” –– there’s a tactical decision to play it straight, rather than Cunningham showing us a past self through a gauze. Maybe he got bored of the murk and obfuscation; maybe he’s merely getting a prettier album out of his system before doubling down with a dense tome of glitch.
But as well as integrating singing into his compositions, what’s interesting is that Actress no longer operates alone in a wider sense, either. You can point to a lineage of Black British musicians –– including cktrl, Dean Blunt, Coby Sey and Klein –– who work within a roughly similar framework: cloaked in shadow, leaving breadcrumbs in the trail, engaging with light and the dark, all crafting beautifully poignant, categorisation-eluding music with a range of tools. It makes “Karma & Desire” the first Actress album in a minute to chime with the contemporary mood. And if that leads to another round of collaboration from here, we’ll be all the richer for it.