Fred again.. seemingly blinked into existence fully formed, a shining new star in the EDM firmament. His debut album, Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020), released late into the pandemic lockdowns, made his reputation globally by giving hope to ravers and clubbers pining for the dancefloor. Across the Actual Life trilogy, Fred again.. sampled audio from YouTube, Instagram, and FaceTime in club-ready mixes that pulled a disparate community of artists into his orbit: open-mic slam poets and established rappers, close friends and complete strangers. In the past year, Fred again.. has only burned brighter: He’s played a breakout Boiler Room set and a viral NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and formed an unlikely alliance with Four Tet and Skrillex for a riotous series of concerts at Madison Square Garden, Times Square, and Coachella.

Of course, Fred again.. did not come out of nowhere; his rise was abetted by a background that granted him access to people like Brian Eno. After a family friend netted 16-year-old Fred Gibson an invitation to Eno’s a cappella singing group, Gibson convinced Eno of his considerable production talents. Eno took him under his wing and gave him his first credits on Eno’s two 2014 albums with Underworld’s Karl Hyde. Eno’s manager also worked with Roots Manuva and landed Gibson a spot on 2015’s Bleeds; from there, he wrote and produced for high-profile projects from Swedish House MafiaEllie GouldingHeadie One, and Ed Sheeran. In the late 2010s Gibson worked behind the scenes on a long list of No. 1 hits, but it was Eno who encouraged him to step out on his own and complete the Actual Life albums.

Secret Life is a collaboration between Fred again.. and Eno, recorded during the Actual Life era and released on Four Tet’s Text label. The album features Fred again..’s sample collages slowed down to the ambient pioneer’s glacial pace. Eno has said of Gibson, “I didn’t really understand a lot of what he was doing. It took me quite a while to think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really a new idea about how you can make music.’” Secret Life suggests that Eno still doesn’t understand Fred again..’s appeal. Gibson is a talented producer, but his methods are not new. His YouTube plundering has been done by the Range, his sample mangling borrows from Burial, and his vulnerable singing style recalls James Blake. Fred again..’s work is mainly impressive for the way it upcycles these techniques into the mainstream, creating dazzling new patterns in a rapidly revolving kaleidoscope of influences.

Secret Life is immaculately produced—how could it not be?—but lacks the communal spirit that made Actual Life feel fresh and accessible. The most exciting element of the Fred again.. project is Gibson’s magpie approach to gathering samples and the deceptive ease with which he deploys them. Any audio clip that crosses Gibson’s social media feed may end up in his mixes, creating the illusion of a party that anyone can join. Eno has cordoned off this egalitarian free-for-all and turned it into a museum exhibit where somber whispers are more appropriate than joyful shouts.

Many hallmarks of corporate ambient are here: slowly decaying piano notes, time-stretched vocals, lazily strummed acoustic guitar, and hazy synths, all wrapped in rustling static. There are moments when these elements come together beautifully, as with the nostalgic dreamscape that surrounds Lola Young’s soaring vocals on “Trying.” At other times, Fred again..’s songcraft struggles, and fails, to break through. A case in point is “Cmon,” which recycles Fred Again..’s “Lydia (please make it better)” (which itself samples Bad Honey’s “Hjem (Please Make It Better).” Whereas the bare-bones introduction to “Lydia” presages a bass-heavy groove, the same material stops short just as it gains momentum at the halfway point of “Cmon,” and the rest of the song staggers along on the strength of a chopped and panned vocal line with little other development.

In a puzzling move for an accomplished songwriter like Gibson, many of the lyrics on Secret Life are taken piecemeal from other songs. At times, Fred again..’s emotional delivery benefits the lyrics he has adapted, as with the minimalist take on a verse from Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life” on “Secret,” which saves Cohen’s musings on loneliness and duplicity from the overdone schmaltz of the original. Elsewhere, though, Gibson unnecessarily flattens melodies, as when he strips the soul from Winnie Raeder’s “Don’t You Dare” on “Enough.” The lines “Come on home/Come on home/You don’t have to be alone” are eerily familiar when they are barely murmured on “Radio.” When Gibson reunites these words with their original melody on album closer “Come on Home,” it’s easy to recognize John Prine’s “Summer’s End,” and hard not to simply play that song instead. Borrowing lyrics is nothing new—M.I.A. quoted both the Modern Lovers and the Pixies to great effect, for example—but these songs sound more like half-remembered covers than clever appropriations.

Despite his celebrity and his apparent openness, much about Fred again..’s life remains, well, secret. Though the emotional undercurrent of the Actual Life series gave the impression of diaristic confession, its digital fragments ultimately reflected others more than himself. Secret Life multiplies this effect like a hall of mirrors distorted through Eno’s influence. Every way forward turns us back again toward Gibson’s recent work, each song providing little more than a different angle on what we’ve seen before.

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Fred Again.. & Brian Eno: Secret Life