Fred Again’s ‘Actual Life 3’ Meshes a Kaleidoscope of Beats, Melodies and Samples Into One of the Year’s Best Releases: Album Review

Fred Again — a.k.a. Fred Gibson — brings a unique pedigree to this, his third solo album in 18 months. A 29-year-old songwriter-producer mentored by Brian Eno (who insists that Gibson mentored him just as much), he was thriving as a hit songwriter, with a U.K. No. 1 single for George Ezra and hits for Clean Bandit and subsequent collaborations with Ed Sheeran, Clean Bandit, Skrillex, Burna Boy, FKA Twigs, BTS and many more when Eno challenged him to begin working as a solo artist.

Glad that he did: Fred’s music is an unusual collection of treated samples — ranging, on this album, from a Bleu song featuring Drake to the gospel Clara Ward singers, from voice notes from friends to random videos found on Instagram — combined with electronic beats and textures and artfully rendered melodies. But what makes Fred Again’s work different from most records in this genre is the songwriting: Where many if not most electronic musicians approach their songs from a musician’s or producer’s angle, he meshes these elements into unusually memorable melodies — his use of Winnie Reader’s song “The End of Me” transforms a line from that song into a new and equally beautiful yet totally different one.

“Actual Life 3 (January 1 – September 9 2022)” is the third album in a trilogy that began during the pandemic and apparently documents his life during the dates in the title (it follows “Actual Life (February 2nd – July 19th)” and “Actual Life 2 (February 2 – October 15 2021)”). But along with the vivid, resonant songs is an intimate, diary-like looseness that places a voicenote from a friend where one might ordinarily expect a sung verse. But rather than making the songs lighter and less substantial, it builds on the melodies and kaleidoscopically diversifies the album’s palette. Fred’s discography is confusing — in recent months he’s released a series of singles in collaboration with Swedish House Mafia and Future, the xx’s Romy and I. Jordan that aren’t included on this album — but no matter where you dig in, there’s memorable music to be found.

“Actual Life 3” like an aural version of scrolling through someone’s social media posts, with his evocative beats and musical textures taking the role of visuals and the spoken-word bits paralleling a photo or video of his friend who seems cool and you’d like to meet. And it all adds up to one of the best and most memorable albums of the year.

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