As a copywriter for a marketing agency, I frequently deal with the core concept of a Call to Action or CTA. It’s the part of the advertisement that compels the reader to take a very specific step, or at least it should. When there’s no clear CTA, you don’t know what to do, no matter how flashy the visuals, how catchy the indie rock hook, and famous the spokesperson might be. We’ve all seen our fair share of commercials where it’s unclear exactly what’s being sold, much less how to buy the product or service being presented to you. The vehicle or luxury item might look good on the screen, but if the ad doesn’t give you a way to buy it, you’re simply being told that something exists. The CTA makes the offer about the customer. It gives them agency by putting the decision in their hands. Without it, the commercial is just talking to itself.
Karma & Desire, the new album by Actress, has a similar issue. The music is replete with beautiful and impeccable slices of minimalist electro that strikes a keen balance between avant-garde and cinematic soundscape. Everything here sounds good, but there’s no no driving force to these tracks—no CTA—which makes the listening experience more confusing than it should be.
To be clear, an artist should never feel like they should make art specifically for consumption—that’s not its role. And Darren Cunningham doesn’t owe me a damn thing, yet I still came away wanting something more. All of the necessary elements are present, from the meditative moods and sumptuous guest vocals to the 808 snare claps and gurgling synths. Actress creates a stirring portrait of decaying urbanity in how he morphs bleeding bursts of sounds with dense layers of textured sound effects. The world of this album is grey and bleak with only muted flashes of color appearing ever so briefly. The snippets of noise and voice come across as secret conversations between cryptic liaisons captured solely for our benefit.
Karma & Desire has all the hallmarks of a spectacular album. It can be creepy and spectral in the Burial school, as evinced in tracks like “Angels Pharmacy” and “Many Seas, Many Rivers.” Tunes like “Leaves Against the Sky” and “Turin” are dancefloor grooves that give the impression of forward momentum. On “Loveless” and “Loose,” we’re treated to eerily aggressive electro-pop noise that is both delightful and disorienting, as if Giorgio Moroder and Wendy Carlos decided to collaborate. I want to sing about this album from the rooftops, but I just can’t.
For all of this heady mystery and sonic majesty on display, my attention wanders—early and often. There has to be something here connecting these glitchy snares, washed-out patches of strings, creaking effects, and hushed vocals from the likes of Sampha, Zsela, Aura T-09, Christel Well, and Vanessa Benelli Mosell. But I just couldn’t find it, and that makes me feel like I’m missing something. Which is entirely possible.
Like a well-crafted landing page or commercial that doesn’t quite convert visitors as it should, Karma & Desire is a missed opportunity for Actress. It’s still missing the connective element that could have brought together all of the magnificent, yet disparate elements into a united whole. Instead, while I thoroughly dig most of these songs, the lack of cohesion results in a fractured listening experience that leans more on complexity at the expense of a unified vision.
Label: Ninja Tune