Anna Meredith announces her eagerly anticipated second studio album, FIBS, released on 25 October via Moshi Moshi. The album is heralded by the release of ‘Paramour’, its first single and spectacular accompanying single-take video, and a song that forbids you from turning away – its sweeps, jerks and wrong turns pinning your ears to the speakers whilst heading for warp speed at a blistering 176 BPM before rounding the journey out with an (utterly unexpected) tuba-led half-time rock-out.
Written by Piotr Orlov
On her second album proper, the Scottish producer/composer/singer-songwriter dials up her rock band’s dynamic power, creating a nervy, chaotically controlled embodiment of contemporary uncertainty.
he clarion sounds that opened Anna Meredith’s first pop recording—a Novation synthesizer’s brass and tuba presets and a cello, on “Nautilus,” from the 2012 EP Black Prince Fury—simultaneously created her musical trademark and set her on a fresh path. The phrase is a bold, symphonic fanfare that, once the rock drums hit, announced a genre-free space while helping Meredith ascend from the contemporary classical sandbox. The song became something like the Scottish composer/producer/singer-songwriter’s sonic signature, returning on subsequent releases (her 2016 full-length debut, Varmints, as well as Bo Burnham’s 2018 film Eighth Grade, which also features her gorgeous original score); variants now reappear throughout her new album FIBS. Most importantly, it highlighted how Meredith brings musical tropes familiar to the masses—in this case, marches of cinematic elephants and stormtroopers, or textures of grime and Southern hip-hop, or the pulse of Carnival parades—into rarified arts spaces, challenging assumptions about class, meaning, and volume inherent to both concert halls and clubs, while trying to keep the fun and the seriousness in both.
These are also among the social and narrative tensions at the heart of FIBS. With her second proper album, Meredith shelves the notion of a small group making symphonic dramas and instead takes increasing advantage of the dynamic power that a synth- and guitar-driven band can generate, in the way that some downtown New York composers did during punk’s heyday. The shift also informs her music’s sentimental upheaval, giving it an increasing immediacy and wrapping it in a vaguely political air. FIBS never stoops to proclaim itself pro- or anti- any forces currently in diametric opposition (in the UK or around the world). But it is music that embodies this precarious historic juncture, mirroring the chaos and instability of the contemporary moment in its very form. In this, Meredith has written a set of pieces that better speaks to our era than her classically trained peers’ middlebrow drones and respectful sit-down music. FIBS is just too loud and nervy for that—kinda like the newsfeed.
Even before “Nautilus,” Meredith seemed predestined for this terrain, with one foot in pop and another in new classical, and choreographing those limbs to brilliant effect. Her catalog—a solo for bassoon amplified like punk guitar; a Steve-Reich-meets-Stomp “Body Percussion” orchestral piece; an IDM mash-up of a brunch classic, etc.—is recommended to anyone bored by much of what passes for contemporary repertoire. After “Nautilus,” Meredith’s pop miniatures also reflected an art-school nature. It’s in her non-traditional instrumentation and songwriting, whose complex structures and crisp lyrical narratives have precedents throughout the UK’s post-punk, art-prog, synth-pop timeline. Varmints was a wonderful embrace of this space, full of sinewy pop songs and instrumentals that echoed the propulsion of Pixies and New Order, often heavy on the backbeat, always rightfully assured in their own greatness.
Yet from its title on down,Varmints also hinted that, while the drums and instrumental runs were intent on activating the serotonin, more diseased thoughts about the state of our institutions were also present. “Taken,” which featured Meredith amid a trio of voices and has the dark, muscular feel of synth pop on steroids, was unsparing in its take on a world that the sun once never set upon: “What seemed a good idea has fast become a fraying waste of time.” FIBS picks up the sentiment three years later, when those words not only don’t sound the slightest bit dated, they’re the foundation for the current rot. “Inhale Exhale” is FIBS’ own propulsive sequencer-and-toms prologue, but Meredith sounds like she’s singing from an island, exasperated: “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.” Her wordless vocal ushers in the song’s primary melody, and a title-repeating chorus arrives with the kick drum and a stuttering bass synth; when the song rolls on, with all the layers working as a single mechanism, it explodes as a trebly pop runaway, at once hyper-vivid and hyper-tense. It is an expertly produced rush that foresees an imminent crash, delivered in a voice that has already lived its consequences.
That chaotic uncertainty is the reality Meredith repeatedly presents on FIBS, both emotionally and through musical structure. It is the work’s deeper raison d’être, even when the individual pieces seem digestible, pretty, or even safe. The feverish “Sawbones” is a prog-rock hallucination, fluidly Frankensteining one sonic caricature onto another, juxtaposing high-pitched staccato keys with bass-synth splurges, mutating into guitar arpeggios that interact with disco hi-hats, and so on. “Calion” could easily qualify as a beatless techno piece, its muted kick appearing beneath undulating melodic percolations; yet soon enough a dubwise low end appears like an earthquake to destabilize the whole thing, as the swirling mass tumbles all around. “Bump” brings back the signature “Nautilus” textures with an even more egregious “Imperial March” nod, as Jack Ross’ guitar drills into its structure to make this song too fall apart before reconstituting as a mammoth one-note guitar-synth riff. “Paramour” tacks that familiar brass fanfare (tuba now courtesy of Tom Kelly) onto a hyperactive, electronics-driven instrumental, pairing them with a squealing guitar in the closest thing to funk syncopation that Meredith can be accused of. All of it is intense music of supreme control and a designed anarchy, full of loud proclamations that go a long way toward embodying the album’s title.
The parts of FIBS that lie on the outskirts of these Technicolor spasms of pandemonium bring meaning and reprieve—on occasion, simultaneously. “Killjoy” musically quotes the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” while applying Meredith Monk-like vocal repetitions to wonderful verses that showcase a confrontation with modern life (“Thanking you for leaving/Do what’s best to save face…/Thanking you for stealing/What’s left of the daytime”); the chorus follows these up as an assertion of personal will. “moonmoons” and “Limpet” are two of the softest and most musically straightforward instrumentals Meredith has set to record—the former a lovely duet between electronics and cello in which clouds gather and dissipate, the latter a guitar-heavy ride with a hook that features Meredith’s take on a Clearmountain pause. Those songs’ simplicity suggests the deep breath required of survival. Yet survival is not at all assured on the closing elegy “Unfurl,” where a suddenly vulnerable Meredith intones, “Something’s bound to break/It better not be me.” And who could blame her?
There is, throughout FIBS—and Anna Meredith’s career—a necessary act of pretension at play. Not the act of putting on airs or simple mimicry, but of pretending, what Eno once called the “thought experiments [of finding] out what it would be like to be otherwise” for culture’s benefit. What began with Meredith turning the Novation presets up to 11 and seeing how they fit with Bonham-like drums has, rather strangely, ended up a musical expression of dancing through a world full of lies, not wanting to stop, and seeing where else it takes her. Back around “Nautilus,” Meredith said that, to her, “honesty is more interesting than originality.” Her acts of pretension have seen her wind up with a fair bit of both.
Anna Meredith – Paramour
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