Peter Ormerod reviews Anna Meredith at Warwick Arts Centre
In an age of algorithms, of corporations giving us just what they know we want, of artistic ventures tailored to precise demographics and markets, it is a miracle that there is room for Anna Meredith. To say an act 'defies categorisation' often means little more than that they sometimes play soppy ballads and sometimes play shouty rock. But in Anna Meredith's case, the term is entirely justified: her work spans distressingly claustrophobic wordless synth epics, effortlessly effervescent techno-pop and, in her live shows at least, loving covers of Daniel Bedingfield and Carly Rae Jepsen.
And that's before we get on to her commissions for the First and Last Nights of the Proms, indie film soundtracks and, er, flashmobs at motorway service stations. She's only 41 and has already been made an MBE for services to music. It might all be a bit annoying were it not for the fact that, in person, she appears impossible to dislike.
Anyone familiar with the density and complexity of Meredith's music may be surprised that her live band comprises only five members. That the sound they create is often hard to distinguish from her records is testament to their skill as players and to Meredith's as a composer and arranger. Indeed, it quickly became apparent that Meredith deserves a further honour in recognition of her services to the tuba: so long derided as something of a comedy instrument and played memorably by Harold Bishop in Neighbours, it turns out that, with some imaginative sonic tweaking, it can exude menace with every parp. Where once it would soundtrack hippos waddling in muddy rivers, here it evoked something akin to the sense of being stuck in a lift while the world ends.
What impresses is not so much that the individual tracks differ from each other so greatly in form and mood. It's more that each crams in more ideas in two minutes than most acts manage in two albums. These pieces teeter, screech, thud, thrum, pulse, bubble, ring, soar, bulge, flow, swerve, squelch; they stretch and snap back like elastic. They constantly wrongfoot, sometimes literally so: there were valiant attempts to dance to rhythms that rarely obeyed convention. The same piece can be hyperactive to the point of overwhelming; then a drummer might punch beats through it to bring it back under a measure of control; then it might veer off again and assume different colours and shapes. Some have singing and lyrics, after a fashion. It is remarkable then that each piece is so coherent, and that the set as a whole is so obviously the work of a single composer. Meredith's work may be mercurial, but it could be made by no one else.
The set drew mostly from her two studio albums, 2016's Varmints and last year's Fibs, works from the latter generally sounding more light and bouncy than those from the former. Opener Sawbones was performed with an almost eerie precision, given its brisk and sudden turns. And there was not long to wait for Inhale Exhale, the most straightforward song here and one that may be destined to become a gem of off-kilter British pop to be discovered anew by successive generations (of course, in a just world, it would be number one everywhere forever). Other tracks brought welcome respite from the wild arpeggiations and sonic assaults before the ominous Nautilus brought a heavy mystery to proceedings, the set closing with the elegant and exultant Paramour.
It may not be immediately apparent to the casual listener that a vein of joy runs through much of Meredith's work. It felt quite natural therefore for the encore to be a shameless medley of pop bangers, Gotta Get Thru This, Call Me Maybe and Abba's Lay All Your Love On Me among them. This was accomplished with no hint of affectation - merely affection. And Meredith herself was an affable presence throughout, cajoling, encouraging and beseeching a seemingly storm-worn audience between each song, tempting sufficient numbers from their seats to form a quorum of dancers at the foot of the stage.
Yet for all the undoubted brilliance on show, even the most devoted fan of Meredith would concede that her music is not for everyone. The lines between playful, quirky and wacky are easily crossed, and some may find their patience tested. This is music that deserves generous ears and may not always find them; it is easy to imagine it being dismissed as annoying, but then the sort of person who would find it annoying perhaps deserves to be annoyed.
It is rare indeed to find music that so gladdens the heart while pleasing the head. At its best, Meredith's work is a synthesis of the cerebral and the visceral. Her music is hard to contain, hard to define, hard to nail down. She may not be the kind of artist these times deserve; but on this evidence, she is just what these times need.
* Visit www.annameredith.com/live for details of future tour dates