Even Buckingham Palace knows how good Anna Meredith is. They saw fit to award her with an MBE earlier this year, after only one studio album! Why read music website reviews when all the recommendations you need are in the biannual Queen’s Honours.
For the uninitiated, and the confused, it really is true that Anna Meredith received the honour this year. It was, of course, to celebrate her accomplishments in the classical world, where a twenty-year-long composing career has seen her receive the honour of being the first woman to have a piece commissioned for the Last Night of the Proms, amongst countless other accolades. Indeed, in the three years since her debut Varmints, Meredith has been absurdly busy, between scoring the astounding coming-of-age film Eighth Grade, producing a feature-length album interpolation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and writing a piece for the centenary of the end of the First World War for the Proms. Quite where she found the time to put together this superlative second album is hard to understand.
Where Varmints was a celebration of the myriad musical possibilities that can be cajoled from a home set of electronic toys, FIBS is a major expansion. This album is a full-band affair, a shift into a multi-player environment with which Meredith is, needless to say, au fait, but which is nevertheless novel for her solo output. There is, as Meredith herself has hinted, a greater focus this time around on the art of songwriting too, that mercurial alchemy that lies behind the pop song now gripping Meredith’s artistic impulses, as it has done so many experimentalists before her.
Take, for example, ‘Inhale Exhale’, the lead single and the track that Meredith has described as her best pop song to date. Her vocals, which are more prominent throughout the record as a whole, here recall the dream pop of Victoria Legrand, but they are soundtracked by a rippling synth bed that rests somewhere between rave and Autechre. It is a glistening example of the dexterity that few of Meredith’s contemporaries can match as she once again hones in on the drama, the emotional crux of every musical domain she visits.
‘Killjoy’ continues the exploration, with vocals this time from drummer Sam Wilson. Structures are just new puzzles to deconstruct for Anna Meredith, and she has fun playing with the foundations of this track. Words and phrases are employed as impressionistic thought-markers, suggestive signposts that paint moods rather than pictures. Later in the album, ‘Limpet’ offers an intriguingly new detour, an electric guitar-led number, ostensibly helmed by Jack Ross, but one can almost see Meredith lurking behind the curtain with the wry smile of an artist that has once again confounded expectations.
‘Sawbones’ comes the closest to the hurtling DIY mayhem that we came to know with Varmints, coming in with a mad, scrambling headrush, pounding tuba competing with galloping drums and hyperactive synths, whereas ‘Bump’ is like the score to a ceremonial march where the characters have leapt from the canvases of Picasso’s high cubism period. But there are counter moods too: ‘Moonmoons’ is a plaintive cello solo, the album’s first real breather at its halfway point, a celebration of the beauty that Meredith is also at home with; ‘Ribbons’, meanwhile, is the prettiest moment, Meredith’s delicate high vocals balanced by a simple piano line and a childlike melody. By the time the closer ‘Unfurl’ arrives, a two-minute coda led by Meredith’s isolated, bare vocal over a hum of spectral, celestial ambient music, we the listeners appreciate the moment of closure, a tinfoil blanket at the finish line of this long-distance, far-ranging and vastly rewarding musical journey.