With I was born by the sea, Richie Culver brings to a close a period of intense introspection and emotional reckoning with a debut album that serves as both an optimistic statement of intent and a final glance back at the painful places it explores. Following recent work with Blackhaine and Pavel Milyakov, I was born by the sea picks up where Culver’s EP for Italian label Superpang, Post Traumatic Fantasy, leaves off, painting an unabashed portrait of contemporary malaise, detailing a life lived behind closed doors, pinned under the crushing weight of austerity, sapped of the strength to do anything other than gaze out to sea and all the grey possibilities it represents. Where Post Traumatic Fantasy saw Culver returning to his hometown of Hull after a period spent entangled in London’s relentless sprawl, his first full length project reaches further back to his formative years working in a caravan factory and going to raves in and among Hull’s outskirts. Unspooling like a fever dream, I was born by the sea is the anxious clutter of a racing mind spoken clearly, a stark reflection on how it feels to have too many ideas and too much time to act on them.
Though unquestionably a snapshot of a time of significant difficulty, Culver reflects on this period with tender empathy and pitch-black humour, stitching together unflinching observations from England’s neglected corners, ‘there’s more mobility scooter repair shops and bookies than there are bookshops,’ and devastating vignettes of everyday struggle, ‘tears on the tin foil’, with surreal depictions of industrial grit, ‘skimming stones in a small pond by the slaughterhouse’. His DIY approach to production stretches the rough sinew that connects these fragments of memory, a process he describes as using a paired back collection of synths and drum machines to the best of his ability, ‘but to the least of their capabilities,’ wringing out visceral sound with self-taught urgency. During the album’s most impressionistic passages it’s as though Culver has transposed past internal turmoil into powerfully resonant noise, the Sisyphean sonics of ‘Create A Lifestyle Around Your Problems’, which evokes in its concrète clatter and MRI machine barrage the sound of making the same mistake again and again, or the stuttered jumble of ‘Its Hard To Get To Know You,’ its garbled vocal modulation and frayed edges of distortion channeling the paranoia of somebody listening to muffled voices through thin plaster, climbing the walls of their bedroom with the curtains closed, a nervous breakdown in stereo.
In counterpoint to this glides the ever-present spirit of the dance floor, which haunts the record from the moment it is invoked in its first few seconds. Opening onto a sea wall of bright synthesis, the stuttering vocals and bass tone chops of ‘Nervous Energy’ dump us directly into post rave ecstasy, the echoing cry of a voice amplified by loudspeaker carrying the loose energy and surge of crowds moving in darkness. The incessant, dead phone line beep of ‘Pigeon Flesh’ builds to a pulse that suddenly swells into an anxious technoid surge, shapeshifting at lysergic speed into head shrinking audio hallucinations, a descent into the void of the present via machine music hypnosis. Even ‘Its Hard To Get To Know You’ summons the ego death drive of hardcore techno within its scorched textures, flickering indiscernibly between attritional noise and frazzled hardware stomp. Paying homage to both the parties of his youth and a countless succession of Sundays spent offering himself up within Berghain’s hallowed architecture, Culver’s experiments in addressing his formative relationship with rave provide an energetic glimpse at where he might take his sound next.
Between spikes of propulsive energy and grim mood pieces Culver returns to suspended passages of aching, glacial drift, the cold swell of the North Sea, accompanied by some of his heaviest testimonials. The gauzy ebb of ‘Daytime TV,’ its tumbling loops reminiscent of boats bobbing off a distant shore, sees the artist at his most checked out, slumped in front of his television, seven days a week. ‘I used to dream of doing something,’ he admits, ‘anything to get out of this town.’ ‘Love Like An Abscess’ pairs swirling currents of ambient shimmer with violent images of baseball bats lying next to beds and blood-stained mattresses, next to which Culver pleads in a desperate mumble, ‘let our love grow, like a broken abscess.’ Yet it’s with the album’s final word and title track that Culver reveals a glimmer of cautious optimism, a parting gesture of exposition and closure. ‘I knew I had to get away,’ he asserts, ‘so I did and I never looked back.’ What follows builds from a low throb, the flutter of a tiny heartbeat, to a resonant glow, embellished with unfurling synthetic burbles, oil rigs sparkling in the distance, golden light spilling across the sea. In reckoning with the place he had to escape, Richie Culver is now free to look towards the promise of something new, something hopeful.