Generally, when an artist creates a record and titles it something like R.I.P., it is a safe assumption that they are exorcising some of their darker material. However, for the singular and solitary electronic musician Actress (aka Darren Cunningham), R.I.P. was only a herald for the true death that was coming: his retirement, in the form of Ghettoville. It should be no surprise that Actress, committing technical “suicide” here, seems to heed Neil Young’s old maxim — “it’s better to burn out than fade away” — and dies with his most ambitious work under this moniker.
The press release for Ghettoville refers to it as “…the bleached out and black tinted conclusion of the Actress image,” which is as effective an introduction as any. It is not unusual for Actress to use unpolished and naturalistic sounds, but here he takes that idea to an uncanny level, taking a lo-fi approach to arrangement that makes these tracks — “bleached out and black tinted” — extremely tangible. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ghettoville is how powerfully it achieves its “conclusion” by evoking an image of impoverishment and bleak, tired resignation. This is apparent in just the first two tracks, “Forgiven” and “Street Corp,” which are markedly dark and difficult. “Forgiven” – titled curiously, considering its murky atmosphere and lurching, minimal rhythms – launches the album by immediately placing the listener within an atmosphere of intense malaise.
In the dreamy follower “Street Corp,” Cunningham slows the pace and lulls his audience with a somewhat static, minimal progression. Despite the change in pace, however, “Street Corp” hovers in the same depressive tone, connoting the literal aspect of the album’s concept: the ghetto. Actress then moves from the streets to “Corner,” eschewing the abstraction of the preceding, longer tracks and nodding to hip-hop for the first time. The bouncier beat and subtle groove, aptly, fit well as the accompanying music for a corner drug deal. Even when reminding us of Mouse on Mars here, Cunningham stays anchored in the dark side of his concept, implying the illegal activity that springs from hard economic conditions in the inner city. Sporadically throughout Ghettoville, pieces of this ghetto portrait emerge in fragmented images: the cool, bouncy “Rims;” the fluttering but compressed “Birdcage;” and the soaring, disorienting “Towers.”
Of course, Actress’ Ghettoville is preoccupied with more than just the classic British social realism. As Actress makes clear, Ghettoville is Actress’ epitaph; an avatar of solitude (as usual) as well as personal and creative perdition. Thus, the ghetto in Ghettoville is more than just a place or a socioeconomic phenomenon, it is a state of emotional ruin. This is evinced by the handful of stark, emotional tracks that Cunningham leaves littered throughout the album. “Contagious” affects isolation with a hauntingly unintelligible and distant vocal sample; the gorgeous “Our” seems to achieve a human connection, but it too only provides unintelligible words and disappears after a tantalizingly brief duration.
An anxiety-inducing spectre appears in “Time,” which ebbs and swells with slow menace before suddenly halting. These emotional impressions alternate with Actress’ images of poverty, effectively conflating the socioeconomic and the personal in a powerful declaration of disillusionment. By the time Cunningham ushers in “Don’t,” which pushes back against the general thrust of the record by pleading (via vocal sample) “don’t stop the music,” the listener cannot help but consider that there is no other possibility but for the music to stop. When the lush follower “Rap” desperately gestures towards soul music — “wrap your arms around me” — the inevitability is clear.
It is obviously a bittersweet proposition for an intriguing artist like Actress to retire (as such) on the heels of some of his best work. It is bitter, though probably appropriate, that he went out with such a bleak vision. But if Neil Young’s maxim is still relevant here, then so is the older one that states there is no death without life; they exist in constant balance. Ultimately, it is this balance that undergirds all our lives and, more importantly, makes them bearable. So, for Actress, let us declare “rest in peace,” accept this conclusion, and await a new beginning.