Fred Gibson is 28 years old. He was born and lives in London. David Balfe is 30 years old. He was born and lives in Dublin. The former lost one of his best friends to illness. The latter lost his best friend to suicide. The former had experience producing some big name musicians. The latter, only in unknown previous bands. Both work on one-man projects, seasoned with voice cuts extracted from whatsapp messages. From friends and strangers. They compose, produce and distribute their records from the solitude of the musician who faces the world within the four walls of his home, with his laptop as his most faithful companion. With local roots and a universal vocation. Both have debuted this year.
And both have made the most moving, exciting and pulsating albums of 2021, the year of the end of the tunnel. Two albums. Or rather, three: two by Fred Again.. (thus, with two dots), which is Fred Gibson‘s alias, and one from For Those I Love, which is David Balfe‘s alias. Works that, starting from the proximity of death, stand as monumental hymns to life. Contagious tributes to an overflowing empathy. Wonders of that pop inventiveness that never dies, only transforms. The kind you have to listen to as a whole. From beginning to end. Because it is the concept that imposes itself. And the one that triumphs.
There are a few things that differentiate them, but many more that they share. They both brilliantly (and with an admirable economy of means) capture the legacy of the best dance music made in the UK in recent decades. They are children of club culture. Of the colloquial chumming of the post-rave era. From that continuum that in the islands started from acid house fever to trap, passing through trip hop, drum’n’bass, jungle, garage, 2-Step, grime and dubstep.
Styles that, emerging from the underground, from the suburbs of the big cities, from the cramped council estates, have gradually conquered the charts and culturally colonised a large part of the pop planet. Genres that have been the loudspeakers of their youth for two decades.
It is the sound of remembering those who are gone, of overcoming grief and of recovered embraces.
It’s impossible not to remember almost all of them when listening to For Those I Love (September Recordings, 2021) or Actual Life (April 14 – December 17 2020) (Warner), both released before this summer; also with the recent Actual Life 2 (February 22 – October 15 2021) (Warner).
Fred Again.. first came to attention producing for Stormzy, Ed Sheeran, The xx, Underworld and FKA Twigs, then with the backing of Brian Eno. After listening to his first two recent albums, released in less than six months, it’s hard to believe that he hadn’t dared to do so before. His is music designed to dance to, but also to feel, to think and to evoke that combination of euphoria and melancholy that has (almost) always defined the best popular music. It is music decisively informed by loss and confinement. Two treatises of electronic pop that are like two consecutive diaries of what the last year and a half was like, lining up in the tradition that goes from The Streets, MJ Cole or Craig David to Bicep, passing through Burial, Skepta, Disclosure, The xx, James Blake or Jamie xx.
It is the sound of remembering those who are no longer with us, of overcoming grief and of recovered embraces. Of the rescue of shared moments. And it is very moving. The “We’re Gonna Make It Through” of Carlos, a blue-collar worker from Atlanta, echoes like a mantra throughout the first of their albums and emerges in the second. It is the great slogan of a time that both works define to perfection, punctuated by those voice messages that invoke concord and sprawl as the best way to celebrate this fucking life.
For Those I Love is David Balfe’s heartfelt tribute to Paul Curran, his friend since the age of 13 and partner in his previous project, Burnt Out. Curran decided to take his own life in February 2018. Without warning. As most people do. And David had no choice but to start again from scratch and devise a collection of songs that are rap, electronic, dance, lament, celebration and remembrance all at the same time.
An album, For Those I Love (Orchard/September Recordings, 2021), which at times sounds like a cross between The Streets and Underworld, and at other times a combination of Burial and Disclosure. The jubilant closing of a great scar. The growing throb of a gaping hole in the chest. And with every word mumbled in a North Dublin accent that sounds like he’s ruminating on glass, but with an authenticity as pungent as his performance at the Jools Holland show.
Fred Again.. and For Those I Love, Fred and David, have tried to fix with songs the memory of that youth that slips through our fingers and will never return. Of that innocence that only has a single ticket. And they have done it in the best possible way: honouring the memory of the best of friendships and connecting directly with the spirit of their time. Theirs, yours, mine. Bravo to them.