This mammoth and category-defying opus is easily the most wildly ambitious debut in recent memory (if not ever) and also happens to be one of my absolute favorite albums of 2022. It was one hell of an enigma at first as well, as Stroom quietly released the album back in October with absolutely no background information provided at all. Given the absolutely bananas volume of material (4 ½ hours) and the consistently high level of quality, I expected that it would be revealed to be some sort of decade-spanning art project involving an all-star cast of sound art luminaries, but I turned out to be spectacularly wrong about most of that. As it turns out, Voice Actor is instead a recent collaboration between Noa Kurzweil (Supertalented) and Levi Lanser (Ludittes), neither of whom I had previously encountered. However, I was at least partially right about the “art project” bit, as Sent From My Telephone collects three years of pieces that the duo originally intended as a radio play (and there are plenty of guest collaborators involved as well). The heart of the project, however, is Kurzweil’s seductive voice and her enigmatic diaristic monologues, which makes Félicia Atkinson a close kindred spirit, yet Lanser’s varied and phantasmagoric backdrops elevate the project into a mesmerizing durational mindfuck that effortlessly blurs the lines between spoken word, plunderphonics, ambient drone, outsider R&B, psychedelia, and Hype Williams’ hypnagogic sound collage side.
The piece that immediately sucked me into the album was “Another Day,” which feels like an elegantly blurred and subtly hallucinatory channeling of a sexy French pop song before it dissolves into a mirage. In some ways, “Another Day” is far from a representative entry point into the album, as it is one of the more hook-driven and structured pieces, but it does capture the album’s sublime magic in a more general sense, as all of the best pieces resemble a decontextualized voice memo of casual, off-the-cuff beauty set to music. That sketchlike nature would probably feel a bit exasperating in lesser hands, but Lanser and Kurzweil transform their mosaic of elusive fragments into a moving and immersive tapestry of intimate and enigmatic moments. I have absolutely no idea if Kurzweil is simply talking about her daily life or playing a character, but experiencing 100+ ephemeral glimpses into that real or imagined life is quite a fascinating and oft-beautiful way to spend 4+ hours either way. I especially love how multilayered and malleable the listening experience can be, as it works as both an instantly gratifying surface experience (Kurzweil has a lovely voice and the underlying music is quite good) and as a non-linear Memento-esque narrative puzzle (What does it all mean? How do the pieces relate to each other? Where does each moment exist in space and time?). Adding to the enigmatic fun is the fact that the songs are presented in alphabetical order, so the arc is fundamentally jumbled and fragmented right from the start and lends itself nicely to endless shuffling and recontextualization.
Given the volume of material here, some pieces are inevitably much stronger than others, but that only adds to the charm for me: one man’s “too much filler” is another man’s shapeshifting durational mindbomb. That “deep plunge” approach sets the stage for plenty of surprises, as being immersed in an extended ambient daze nicely primed me to be completely blindsided by unexpected emotional bombshells, perfect pop songs, or amusingly leftfield samples. “Pelli” is a particularly striking example of the “emotional bombshell” side, as it begins as a hushed monologue over a woozy bed of drones and strangled feedback before unexpectedly blossoming into a haunting coda centered around police scanner recordings from the early moments of 9/11. My favorite of the poppier pieces is currently the looping and sensuous “Carefully,” but there are way too many highlights to list and my favorite pieces will likely be in a perpetual state of flux forever, as every listen reveals fresh details and emotional shadings that I’d previously missed. Also, focusing on any individual piece feels like missing the point, as the whole is such an absorbing and vividly realized wonderland of melodies, dream fragments, confessional monologues, pop songs erupting from radios, sublime reveries, foreign radio transmissions, and a host of blurred, stretched, hiss-soaked, or submerged sounds from city life. I can think of few (if any) other albums that evoke such a poignant and oft-gorgeous distillation of a life’s peaks and valleys. Nearly every emotional shade of life's rich pageant makes an appearance here: love, regret, ennui, anxiety, vulnerability, comedy, tragedy, sex, violence, hope, dread, and many compelling stops in-between. The voyeuristic and elliptical nature of the album is quite fascinating as well, as I feel a bit like a cab driver trying to piece together the events of a mysterious stranger’s life solely from snatches of overheard late night phone conversations. Even that analogy does the album a disservice though, as the experience feels far more like the flickering impressionist logic of a beautiful dream (albeit one with some dark passing shadows). If I were Voice Actor, I would be extremely tempted to ride off into the sunset now (or would have chosen to stay completely anonymous all along), as trying to come up with a worthy follow up to such a monster opening statement is definitely not an enviable position to be in. That said, being the people who already made Sent From My Telephone feels extremely damn enviable indeed. This album is a masterpiece.