Resident Advisor MAY 16, 2023 - by Andrew Ryce


Fred Gibson teams up with his mentor for an LP of pleasant but ultimately wishy-washy ambient music.

The hype levels are off the charts. Being Fred Gibson in May 2023 must feel, frankly, insane. Fresh off taking over New York City and selling out Madison Square Garden with his buddies Skrillex and Four Tet, and then the even loftier accomplishment of topping the bill at Coachella, you could make a case that, at least in terms of mainstream exposure, Gibson is on course to becoming one of the most famous and popular DJs of all time. Sounds kind of exhausting. So here comes Secret Life, a soothing step back and collaboration with his longtime friend and mentor Brian Eno, which arrived with yet more anticipation and fanfare - Four Tet, who released the album on his Text Records label, called it "the most beautiful album of 2023."

A couple of minutes into I Saw You and you might just agree. Full of beautiful piano blown up to a titanic scale, and wrapped in the gauzy, cocoon-like textures so common to Eno's later period work, it's easy to fall for the slurry, stuttered vocal and lovely melodies. Gibson doesn't have the strongest voice, but he spends most of Secret Life at a whisper, or a James Blake-like warble. A few of the tracks are structured like pop songs, including Secret, a bizarre interpolation of Leonard Cohen's 2001 song In My Secret Life whose pathos feels unearned. Gibson's exhortations of "Hold on / Hold on brother / My sister / Hold on tight" is more like a morning-after pep talk than anything profound, as his voice blurs anonymously into the background.

The rest of the LP is a pleasant mix of vocal songs and barely-there ambient tracks, most of which tick all the Spotify playlist boxes: close-mic'd piano, rustling sounds, voices that murmur in and out of earshot. Gibson's talent for sampling is reduced to wallpaper, sometimes distractingly so - staticky recordings interrupt the otherwise stately Enough like unwanted electrical interference - but mostly just kind of boring. Tracks like Cmon and Safety are pedestrian and inoffensive. They're pretty, sure, but this isn't ambient in the Eno sense. Instead, it feels like lullabies for tired ravers, like Burial's beatless material polished of any grit or edge.

In fact, Secret Life seems so hyper-focused on Gibson's usual tics - borrowing other songs wholesale for maudlin hooks, stadium-ready chord progressions and that feeling of tears welling up in your eyes but never quite falling - that you might question where Eno actually comes in. The LP has a lot in common with Eno's recent vocal-led work, only with his personality replaced by Gibson's, which is when Secret Life starts to come up short. For all of his massive success, Gibson's work is so sincere and cloying that it can sometimes feel insincere, like a talented pupil still stuck on following in his teacher's footsteps instead of striking out on his own.

You know he's got it in him, because Secret Life is undeniably gorgeous. But it's a mainstream, you-know-how-this-ends kind of gorgeous, like a Hollywood remake of some European arthouse film. When you hear the closing strains of Come On Home, featuring Gibson mumbling a John Prine song, it's difficult to be mad at Secret Life. But the bigger problem is that it's hard to feel anything at all.

TRACKLIST: I Saw You / Secret / Radio / Follow / Enough / Pause / Safety / Cmon / Trying / Chest / Come On Home