A utopia’s utopia that seems to morph a little more with each revolution.
In his review of Anna Meredith’s Varmints, Jedd Beaudoin described the British composer-singer-songwriter’s “ability to marry the known and the unknown in such a way that you believe you really are witnessing the birth of something new.” That was over three years ago. Since then, Meredith has favored engagement with the old: she wrote Anno, an experimental continuation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; composed Five Telegrams, a five-movement orchestral piece that took inspiration from field postcards written by soldiers during World War I; and put together the pellucid electro soundtrack for Eighth Grade (2018), whose title alone brings back cringe-worthy memories of adolescence.
Her latest LP, FIBS, invests energy in both the new and the pre-existing. On the fresher side, she tries out augmented reality (she created an app to visualize “moonmoons,” one of the album’s 11 tracks) and tiny cameras (the video for “Paramour” invites the viewer on a Lego train ride). In the realm of the antique, she considers past partnerships (“Divining”), specters (“Ribbons”) and Roger Shepard (“Sawbones”). There’s also the fact that she continues her trademark combination of electronic and acoustic instruments. But the album transcends simplistic divides by exploring perspective. It suggests that the best way to break down categories like “old” and “new” or “classical” and “pop” is to recognize one’s own point of view and inhabit an impossible one instead.
Indeed, the impossible is Meredith’s strong suit. FIBS opens with instrumental “Sawbones,” a song that signifies its own particular madness. Based on the concept of a Shepard tone, it seems to intensify endlessly as patterns of quick-pulsing synth climb to a breaking point that never arrives. But which direction do they climb? Are they really moving at all? The whole track is an expanded auditory illusion—a Magic Eye of squelching and buzzing textures—that makes us wonder if we’re registering actual or imagined sonic phenomena. “Bump,” the piece most likely to appeal to fans of Meredith’s breakout “Nautilus,” works similarly by threading a thundering tuba loop through an especially nebulous needle’s eye of electronic and electric sounds.
While such wordless tracks seem effortlessly disorienting, the tracks that feature lyrics reveal that the work of transforming one’s viewpoint requires equal parts frustration and experimentation. “Inhale Exhale,” by far the record’s catchiest tune, details the gap between the seen and the seeing: “You say you’re dancing in the deep end/ But to me, it looks like drowning/ All this talk of saving, but I’m out of my depth.” It’s a clever twist on the parable of partially blinded eyes, where one cannot see the other well enough to tell if it’s plank or speck that’s acting as impediment to sight. “Divining,” an offbeat breakup joint, expands on this idea by pointing out how temporary relationships fuck with perception. “This space you left me in/ Of pushing and pulling and testing my sense of my self/ The lines that you drew seem more crooked and wrong now,” the song’s conversation between speaker and former companion begins. Yet it’s their very separation that leads to a shift. “Divining/ I’m hiding my veins,” the song concludes. Access to different space and different self begins with predicting divine, extra-bodily modes of being that have yet to be dreamt.
FIBS is a utopia’s utopia that seems to morph a little more with each revolution. It’s not exactly unique—we hear Battles in its unrelenting, complicated percussion and the soundtracks of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in its synthetic textures—but it’s special in the way that it avoids both the moody atmospherics common to a lot of contemporary electronica and the grief-centric solemnity of composers more decidedly entrenched in the classical music world. The LP doesn’t represent novelty as much as it does a geometric approach to once-familiar, three-dimensional sounds that suddenly seem unrecognizable in this particular context. It’s a small miracle that this never comes across as alienating or off-puttingly avant-garde. Instead, this is music that provides us with its own instruction manual: listen, and re-listen anew.