Fred again.. and Brian Eno – ‘Secret Life’ review: ambient soundscapes from master and apprentice
Fred again.. calls Brian Eno his mentor, but the legendary musician and ambient pioneer sees it as more of a two-way street. Introduced by a friend of his who happened to be Eno’s neighbour, 16-year-old Fred Gibson started attending some of Eno’s legendary a capella performances at his home, going on to become his unofficial protégé.
In the following years, Eno gave Gibson his first production credits on his two 2014 LPs with Underworld’s Karl Hyde, and provided the push needed for Fred to transcend his successful career as a songwriter and producer and become Fred again.., the name under which he has fast become the most in-demand producer on the planet. He has since co-written songs with Ed Sheeran and Romy and seen considerable success, though has faced ‘nepo baby’ accusations for his links to the British aristocracy.
As well as many metaphorical gifts given from Eno to Gibson in this leg-up process, one literal present was a file containing thousands of drone sounds, many of which served as the base for songs that make up his hugely successful ‘Actual Life’ series. ‘Secret Life’, Fred and Eno’s first full-length collaboration, was made in a similar time period to the three ‘Actual Life’ LPs, and serves as somewhat of a Fred again.. origin story.
Across the album – released on Four Tet‘s Text Records – Eno lets his protégé take the narrative reins, laying soundscapes behind Fred’s soft-focus storytelling. At certain times, little snippets of samples also used on ‘Actual Life’ creep into the mix, bringing ‘Secret Life’ into the immersive Fred again.. universe like the kind of easter eggs Taylor Swift fans scour her albums for. For diehard fans, it’s a satisfying peek under the hood of his creative process.
But this prior knowledge feels vital to the enjoyment of ‘Secret Life’, with the narrative substance which drives the album integral to its make-up. The album’s full power is only released though when understanding the relationship between the two artists, and what came before. For those in the know, it fills in satisfying gaps; for newcomers or Eno fans unfamiliar with Fred’s work, it’d be easy to feel shut out, in spite of the immersive nature of the project.
While most of ‘Secret Life’ hovers around in an ambient fog with a line or two of vocals here and there, the beautiful and chilling ‘Enough’ is a welcome dose of melody. ‘Cmon’ then best transmits the push and pull between Eno and Gibson, with the latter trying to direct the track towards the dancefloor while the former keeps it on a level.
Released just a few weeks after Fred closed Coachella with a set of thunderous dance and techno alongside Four Tet and Skrillex, ‘Secret Life’ sees him handbrake turn once again into ambient haze, assisted by the man who made it all happen for him. This surprise album – despite its frequent beauty – works best as a puzzle piece rather than a standout record in its own right.
- Release date: May 5, 2023
- Record label: Text Records