Music

If Fred Again’s easy-listening collages on Actual Life 3 are the future, the future looks dull indeed. By Shaad D’Souza.

Fred Again’s Actual Life 3

Fred Gibson on the street in London.
Fred Gibson on the street in London.
Credit: Theo Batterham

Fred Gibson’s artist moniker inspires a unique kind of apathy. His name, by its very nature, feels anticlimactic – seen on a festival line-up or Spotify playlist, one might think “Oh, there’s Fred Again”, or “It’s Fred, again”, or, at worst, “Fred? Again?” It’s a name with a built-in sense of defeat; you can’t help but say it with the same sense of dreary inevitability that you might talk about “work again” or “laundry again” or “tax time again”.

Perhaps that name, though, is profoundly appropriate: although the 29-year-old Gibson first gained recognition as a hired-gun songwriter for British superstars such as Ed Sheeran and Rita Ora, he now spends his time recording and performing an unspecific, maudlin and deeply pandemic-y kind of mainstream house music. Yesterday he released Actual Life 3, the third instalment in his Actual Life series of records in as many years, and it’s hard not to look at its track list – filled with the same platitudes and structural conventions of the past two Actual Life records – and groan. There he is – Fred, again.

Gibson’s formula is so clear that you could listen to almost any Fred Again song and immediately pin down those conventions. He presents himself as a kind of collage-maker, taking field recordings of crowd noise and random people he meets, friends and family, the general ambience of life in London, and layering them with elliptical piano lines and hazy breakbeats. Each track is named after the person who inspired it or who is sampled within the song, and is given a pithy parenthetical. A track with Marea Stamper, aka the Blessed Madonna, is titled “Marea (we’ve lost dancing)” because of the speech she delivers about the closure of clubs during Covid; “Carlos (make it thru)” and a handful of other Actual Life 2 tracks sample a construction worker Gibson met in Atlanta who told him that “we’re gon’ make it through”.

Actual Life 3 makes no changes to this formula. Aside from the fact that timestamps on the intro and outro tracks mark this album as having been produced this year, any of these songs – from the mournful, washed-out “Bleu (better with time)”, with its refrain of “I just know that it get better with time” to the ambient piano track “Mustafa (time to move you)” – could have fitted on the 2020 and 2021 instalments of Actual Life. Vocal samples from the past two albums recur throughout. This time around, Gibson’s production has taken on a chilly 5am gloss, a small shift in temperature from Actual Life 3’s slightly warmer predecessors, but he clearly hasn’t attempted to radically reformulate his music’s DNA in any way.

He has no reason to: this approach has proved wildly popular. Gibson is, if not quite at festival headliner status, at least standing on the precipice of it. His recent performance on Boiler Room, a long-running series of filmed DJ sets, quickly became one of the most-streamed ever, and he is likely one of the biggest drawcards on next year’s Laneway Festival line-up. His past life punching up Sheeran tracks has clearly given him some understanding of what the general public is looking for in their everyday pop music – blinding sentimentality, unplaceable nostalgia, vocals that possess an affected soulfulness – and his prolific release schedule means that Fred Again songs are omnipresent in easy-listening dance music playlists.

Unlike so many of his mainstream club contemporaries, though, Gibson’s found-sound approach adds a griminess to the proceedings, a sense that these dance tracks are wrought from the earth and the atmosphere as opposed to a soulless, black box recording studio. There is something comically hackneyed, or at least profoundly meta, about the way he talks about that field recording process. He has said he is “obsessed with glorifying these seemingly mundane moments”, such as his interaction with Carlos the construction worker, and turning them into meaningful dance tracks. Fans of the 2015 melodrama We Are Your Friends, in which Zac Efron plays an EDM DJ trying to make it big, will remember that in the film’s triumphant coda, Efron’s character finally breaks through by using a Gibson-esque approach, tuning out the conventions of commercial dance music and instead cobbling together samples from the world around him.

I always felt that the ending of We Are Your Friends was camp and a little ludicrous – a too-neat conclusion that underestimated its audience. Seven years later, Fred Again’s success suggests that, actually, Efron and company had it right.

It’s easy to understand why Actual Life struck such a chord when it came out. Gibson’s songs charted a smooth, undeniably easy road towards euphoria. The samples basically told a listener how to feel and the relative softness of his production – any truly violent beats or basslines given a faded, Instagram-filtered patina – meant that it was easy for those who may not usually listen to dance music to find their way in.

Two years on, it’s hard to find any utility in Actual Life 3. Gibson’s production is rote and unsurprising and he still treats his female vocalists more as aesthetic features rather than genuine collaborators. “Danielle (smile on my face)”, a collaboration with the underrated, one-time Kanye West protégé 070 Shake, drains all the instability and threat from her voice, ridding her of what makes her such an interesting singer; “Delilah (pull me out of this)”, which begins as a genuinely fun rave-up, begins to sound like the soundtrack to a Contiki Tour the moment its repeated refrain of “you know how to calm me down” kicks in.

Gibson clearly uses everyday samples to humanise his music, but there’s something that feels deeply callous about Actual Life 3. Repeating a lyric such as “all that I’ve got is you” may technically sound and feel sad, but it’s not unlike writing an intentionally vague Facebook status reading “Never felt so broken before…” or resharing an inspirational quote about overcoming some amorphous hardship. It’s pathos without particulars, a craven attempt at suffusing music with unearned emotion – a formula no less cynical than that used by young adult sick-lit novels or daytime soaps.

There’s also something almost street photography-ish about how Gibson collects his samples. Although “Carlos (make it thru)”, for example, is one of his most popular songs, Gibson hasn’t met Carlos since recording him on his phone. He exists as soulful, disembodied window-dressing on a song made by a guy who went to one of the most expensive day schools in England and was mentored as a teen by family friend Brian Eno. If not outright unethical, it’s at least a little queasy – not necessarily “actual life” as much as a life that seems grittier and more quote-unquote authentic than Gibson’s may actually be.

Using found samples in dance music, of course, is nothing new – it’s as old as the genre itself. Gibson clearly sees himself as a kind of everyman version of Will Bevan, aka Burial, an acclaimed producer of gravelly, haunted rave and ambient music who emerged in the mid-2000s with a series of records that, like Gibson’s, wove field recordings of London streets into meandering and lucent dance tracks.

But unlike Bevan, who has built an entire worldview from little more than ghostly samples and jolting rave production – and whose music seems to be addressed to queer youth, depressive loners and other societal oddballs, as opposed to, like, 30-something marketing executives looking to get their rocks off on the weekends – Gibson has no coherent outlook beyond “the pandemic was bad”. Three albums in, he has little more insight to offer other than “the pandemic was bad, but things could get a little better”. If that. Actual Life 3 seems to be the least coherent of all the Actual Life records, the most like quotes from a teenager’s diary set to festival EDM.

But the formula clearly sells. I wouldn’t be surprised if Gibson kept trekking along the path of his so-called Actual Life, releasing new, increasingly vague and inane instalments year after year. There seems to be an appetite for music like this, which tells you how to think and feel. Perhaps, as Gibson implies, there is even something healing about it. Maybe the future is Fred Again – and again and again and again.

ARTS DIARY

EXHIBITION Project 3: Angelica Mesiti

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until January 29

INSTALLATION Time | Rone

Flinders Street Station, Melbourne, until January 29

OPERA Attila

Sydney Opera House, until November 5

LITERATURE Mountain Writers Festival

Venues throughout Macedon Ranges, Victoria, November 4-6

VISUAL ART Speech Patterns | Nadia Hernández and Jon Campbell

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until January 8

LAST CHANCE

VISUAL ART Lloyd Rees: Looking Into the Sun

Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, until October 31

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Fred austere".

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