Fred Again.., Brian Eno – Secret Life
Current UK house poster child Fred Again.. and iconic ambient pioneer Brian Eno are possibly the most unlikely pairing anyone could have imagined conceiving a project together. Though, on further inspection, perhaps it’s not so hard to see what Eno might have recognised in Fred Again.., real name Frederick John Philip Gibson. It should be noted that the two share a bit of history, with a then sixteen year old Gibson convincing Eno of his prowess as a producer, subsequently nabbing his first production credits on two of Eno’s early 2010’s albums. Gibson rose to his current prominence by way of his Actual Life series, house music LPs that were inspired by and created from endless hours of internet sourced samples, recordings, voice notes, and phone calls between the producer and people from his everyday life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the series gained huge popularity and reverence amidst the isolation of the global lockdown (see: We’ve Lost Dancing).
Gibson’s formula provided a cinema verité skeleton to otherwise standard club ready bloghouse and lo-fi house beats, the overall sentimentality striking a chord with a then emotionally fragile audience. It’s likely within these little ambient collages of, well, actual life that often bookend Gibson’s music that Eno identifies something of himself. But the similarities end there, and on the duo’s collaborative album Secret Life, prove too insipid to result in anything substantial. Created during the Actual Life sessions, Secret Life is a slow burning forty five minutes, all sadboi warbles and Gibson collected samples (some reused) buried beneath layers of murky lo-fi drones and other Eno signatures, like time-warped samples and decaying orchestral phrases. Radio sounds like a James Blake ballad played on stereo from the bottom of the Mariana Trench, while on Enough, snatches of a soppy sample grow more in focus but ultimately, lead nowhere. On Eno’s part, these signatures are so familiar that they come off uninspired. On Gibson’s, samples and soundbites that might carry some gravitas when juxtaposed against a throbbing four on the floor fade into the fog here. There are some contemporary touches that Gibson provides to add some sort of colour to Secret Life’s overall muddiness, like the Koreless-esque vocal chop and pastes on Cmon that provide the slightest hint of a pulse, or the decayed and delayed effects of Safety.
Overall, Gibson and Eno do little to challenge each other. By giving Eno what’s ostensibly the least compelling parts of his formula, Gibson relegates most of Secret Life to sounding like extended versions of his song’s intros and outros. It’s technically masterful, as one might expect from Eno, but astute mixing can’t save Secret Life from being beige all over. There’s no clear conversation happening between two artists with radically different styles and approaches. It’s disappointing to imagine what this might have been should Eno have looked toward Gibson’s dance instincts, or if Gibson had expanded his mostly bland ambient palette by adopting Eno as a masterclass. By trying to find common ground as the starting point for collaboration, Secret Life feels like a huge missed opportunity.
Preview Secret Life below.