Karma & Desire

(Ninja Tune)


Karma & Desire follows on swiftly from the recent Actress mixtape 88, which was cryptically dumped online as a 48-minute-long track. Everything from the style of release to music enclosed within perfectly fits with the enigmatic persona that had been constructed over the course of his career. This veil of distant uncertainty has been a key element across Actress’ most intriguing projects; namely the cohesive immersion of R.I.P. or the wary, impenetrable sprawl of Ghettoville. The air of an unresolved question looms overhead long after the runtime has played out. Alongside ambient and sound art sensibilities, club music tropes are wrestled with, compressed and dissected, before being reused as further materials for building otherworldly, often structurally unsound sonic sculptures. Rather than traditionally-structured songs, tracks often feel like fragments; experiments that are allowed to evolve and devolve on their own terms, sometimes cut abruptly short, sometimes slightly overstaying their welcome, but often resulting in a larger body of work that is oddly intimate in its aloofness. 

These ideas and approaches are continued on Karma & Desire, though notable stylistic differences are clear: guest vocalists are prominent throughout the tracklisting, live piano recordings are used extensively, and there is a clarity to the overall sound that contrasts with the compressed, worn sonics of 88 and Ghettoville.

The inclusion of live piano is perhaps the most welcome new addition, supplying some of the most thoughtful and beautiful moments on the record. Opener ‘Fire and Light’ is a perfect example; a gorgeous, yet faint, piano motif, paired with only textural static hiss and a subtle string arrangement.

The following tracks, ‘Angels Pharmacy’ and ‘Remembrance’, feature vocalist Zsela, and jar slightly in contrast to the opener, working well as a pair, but stunting the flow of the album slightly. 

This is an album that fades in and out of focus. Some tracks meander and attention drifts, but then something comes to the foreground that resonates. Take the cautious dystopian pads midway through ‘Reverend’, the collapsing piano arpeggios of ‘Save’or the pensive solo plucks of ‘Gliding Squares’: these moments are prime examples of what Actress does best, isolated details that seem to wistfully yearn for something long forgotten. 

Unfortunately, these moments of intrigue are limited, and the later half of the album is especially flawed. ‘Many Seas, Many Rivers’, one of three tracks featuring esteemed vocalist Sampha, certainly outstays its welcome, wandering aimlessly across a morose piano loop, the singer’s distinctive vocal perhaps breaking with the auteurist allure of the album. His appearance on album closer ‘Walking Flames’ is a more succinct and successful collaborative effort.

As a whole, the album is neither satisfyingly cohesive nor intriguingly drawn-out. While housing some of the most fascinating and, at times, outright beautiful moments of Actress’ career, the overall impact of Karma & Desire fails to leave the lasting impression of past projects.