The Oxford Dictionary might have opted for ‘goblin mode’ as the word of 2022 – a term that denotes our slovenly, housebound selves – but in reality it belonged to another phenomenon: ‘nepo baby’. It’s not that the act of those with a good start in life is anything new (no, that’s an age-old thing), but that the internet seemed to have cottoned onto it, sparked by one Euphoria viewer’s realisation that actress Maude Apatow is the daughter of Judd Apatow and actor Leslie Mann.
Last year also just so happened to belong to Fred Again.., the rapid-tapping sample fanatic whose friends are likely conscious that their every phone call with him could form the basis of a new track. The use of phone recordings in music is nothing new, adding a bit of real-life authenticity to a project (Yazmin Lacey’s stellar debut album, aptly titled Voice Notes, is a case-in-point), but Fred Again..’s three-part Actual Life series struck a particular chord during our physically cut-off lockdown lives.
With collaborators, pre-planned or not, ranging from The Blessed Madonna (‘Marea (we’ve lost dancing)’), to 070 Shake (‘Danielle (smile on my face)’) and Delilah Montagu (‘Delilah (pull me out of this)’), the series wove its features into the human equivalent of birdsong, capturing the essence of twenty-something life, its high and lows, its euphoria and rumbling unease.
That these two phenomena arose in tandem last year is a spot of serendipity. Fred Again.., born Fred Gibson, just so happens to have had a quite a decent start in life, to put it mildly. Born into British aristocracy, he attended the fancy Marlborough College boarding school. He also happened to be neighbours with ambient pioneer Brian Eno, joining the former Roxy Music man’s a-capella group at the age of 16, where he rubbed shoulders with Eno’s friends, including the likes of Annie Lennox. There are few better entry points into music.
Yet whilst debates over such advantages in life still rage, Fred Again.. hasn’t ever been deemed too privileged that it dilutes his very obvious talent. He’s no Brooklyn Beckham, trying his hand at cooking, photography or any other hobby for that matter. In fact, when it comes to electronic music, Fred Again.. is still very much the man of the moment, resembling Jamie xx’s hype some five to ten years ago.
More recently, he’s been putting his friendship with Skrillex (Sonny Moore) and Four Tet (Kieran Hebden) to good use. Whilst the trio have evidently been having a genuine laugh together – closing Coachella, launching pop-up raves at Madison Square Garden, and releasing music (‘Baby again..’) – it’s also been a mutually beneficial tripartite, combining Four Tet’s underground credentials and Skrillex’s blockbuster transatlantic audience with Fred Again..’s enormous present buzz.
The three have revelled playing it large, but in Brian Eno, Fred Again.. clearly has a mentor who’s taught him one valuable lesson: less is more. Secret Life is one blissfully nourishing sweep of ambient, the voices barely ever rising above a murmur. Where Fred Again..’s Actual Life series sampled the euphoria of hedonistic nights out with others, Secret Life is something to be felt alone; the moment you finally leave your mates at three in the morning and can just be with yourself. As its fluorescent album cover imagery of a sunrise viewed from the top of a park, this is luxury comedown music.
The minimal repeated words on opener ‘I Saw You’, each one hitting like its own piano note, almost self-referentially refers to Fred Again..’s penchant for audio note-taking, with the mention of “Every phone call, call, call, call, call…” humming off into the distance. The drone, resembling Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, provides a place to rest the soul.
It might be more appropriate to deem Secret Life a mix, rather than an album, as tracks bleed into each other; the transition from ‘I Saw You’ into ‘Secret’, for instance, marked out only by some jangly keys and Fred Again..’s eventual hushed vocals of “Pace through the mornin’ / You fuel my mind” – lyrics that are similar in substance to the kind heard on the Actual Life series, yet here said with far more pared-back solemnity.
There are some moments that raise the tempo marginally, relatively-speaking (most things are played down on this album making small tweaks all the more noticeable). The fog horn-like chimes of ‘Follow’ adds a moody, Philip Glass-esque orchestral quality, but the opening of subsequent track ‘Enough’ is the album’s highest point of beauty, reminiscent of the clouds giving way not to sunshine, but glorious, life-affirming, cleansing rain. The addition of random electronic sounds, sparking in every direction like a plasma ball, merely accentuates the beauty.
In a slightly peculiar moment, I was listening to Secret Life in the early hours of the morning, amid the crowds waiting for King Charles III’s coronation. (I was there as part of a journalism course, not out of royalist fervour, I should add). Such a setting is probably the furthest away from the kind of event Fred Again.. fans would usually find themselves in – and for that reason it was a perfect place to observe how this album touches on the very human soul that sits beneath us all, old and young of whatever persuasion.
The pitter-patter audio panning of ‘Cmon’ sounds like the only melody that might break beyond this spiritual zen, but this never in fact materialises and the tranquillity is preserved from start to finish across the album.
‘Chest’, meanwhile, is appropriately titled for the penultimate track, which feels like a deep breath; as is final track ‘Come On Home’, given that hopefully by the time you’ve finished listening to Secret Life, you’ve made it safely back from your night out, just as the sun begins to rise, with this album holding you in your feelings all the way there.
Ambient music is a rare genre that can occasionally hide behind its simplicity, where one long, monotone drone sound is something of a staple. The fact is, among his fast-increasing catalogue, we know Fred Again.. can pull off the upbeat house party shenanigans. With Secret Life, guided by his mentor Brian Eno, he slows things right down, providing respite to breathe and really take it all in. This particular ‘nepo baby’ – whether you deem him one or not that is – shows his grown-up side.