Heavy Tunes: Burial
If I’m writing about dubstep, then it’s officially over as a trend. I don’t even know what dubstep is, and I’m not sure I need to know. It seems to be a term for the skippy, jittery South London dance music that came out of UK garage and “2-step” — the latest mutation of the sound that produced Mike Skinner, aka the Streets.
I loved the Streets and for some reason felt compelled to check out last year’s debut by Burial, whose name suggests pantomime death-metal morbidity but who seems to be an anonymous young man from South London making records in his bedroom while harboring no desire for personal attention: a laudable stance in this age of rampant exhibitionism. “I can’t step up, I want to be in the dark at the back of a club,” Burial said in a recent and very rare interview. “I don’t read press, I don’t go on the internet much, I’m just not into it. It’s like the lost art of keeping a secret, but it keeps my tunes closer to me and other people.”
Really, I just checked out Burial because a bunch of other armchair rock critics were drooling about it. Still and all, I’m glad I did, because verily it blew my little mind. Like some creepy fusion of Wu-Tang Forever and Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Burial was scary and heavenly at one and the same time, a conjuring of urban alienation that simultaneously craved redemption, questing for love among the tower-block ruins of the new dystopia. For every dark articulation on the record (“Wounder,” “Gutted”), equal weight was given to a longing for light (“Prayer,” “Forgive”). At a time when not just London but numerous British cities are crawling with feral gangs in hoodie sweatshirts stabbing and shooting and “happy-slapping” each other — for the sheer hell of it — the sound of Burial captured the hopelessness, isolation, dread we all live with now.
This was interior dance music, aural solipsism, a soundtrack for the shadows. There was a mechanized, disembodied beauty about pieces like “Night Bus,” with its splashing rain, and “Broken Home,” with its skittering syncopation and echoey synth motifs. Much of the album was predicated on a nostalgia for the loss of innocence — and of anonymity — in the UK dance scene, a place where (in Mike Skinner’s words) the weak became heroes. “I love [...] old jungle and garage tunes, when you didn’t know anything about them, and nothing was between you and the tunes,” Burial says. “I liked the mystery; it was more scary and sexy, the opposite of other music.”
Burial’s long-awaited follow-up, Untrue, haunts the same Ballardian cityscapes as its predecessor but is musically richer — in places even oddly exultant. There are more voices, muffled snatches of diva mantras that sound like sad ghosts, and a raft of heart-melting melodies. The almost hymnal grace of the opening “Archangel” (“If I trust you/ If I trust you/ If I trust you…”) sets the tone for an album whose dystopian dolor is deeply touching. “I envied you,” the male voice cries on “Near Dark” before admitting he “can’t take my eyes off you.” The distorted vocals of “Etched Headplate” fold around each other with a kind of sad desperation, while the album’s textures recall the cerebral beauty of early Aphex Twin and his techno disciples.
There’s nothing glitzy about Burial’s world: one Untrue track — an amorphously beautiful sketch — is called simply “In McDonald’s.” Another bears the title “Dog Shelter.” Closer to the bone is “Homeless,” whose busy rhythm is undercut by the muted anguish of its floating vocal lines. The title track, like Burial‘s “U Hurt Me,” is an unsettling statement of reproach to a faithless lover. “Raver,” finally, is a requiem for the scattered hopes of Generation Ecstasy set to a pulsing 4/4 house groove.
Had the guy been prepared to stick his head above the parapet, Burial might have been dubstep’s Original Pirate Material. But Untrue confirms that the self-styled “rubbish superhero” wants his music to remain a kind of private experience, untarnished by media attention to its creator. For that he deserves our unconditional admiration.