Underworld manage to remain highlight influential, widely known, and underrated all at the same time. The British electronic duo has been pushing the limits of dance music ever since they formed back in 1980. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith’s history is rich with milestones, including a tour with Eurythmics, to song dedications from Radiohead, to Hyde playing guitar in Debbie Harry’s band, the two have spent more than their fair share of time contributing to, if not directly calling, the shots that dictate the state of music. As Underworld return with Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, it’s easier than ever to understand the band’s relevance. On their seventh full-length, the two bring a refreshing return to their old creative selves while still keeping both feet firmly planted in the now.
Barbara Barbara begins where any Underworld record should: a song that lures you to the dance floor. “I Exhale”, the album’s lead single and opening track, gleefully romps between two notes, lurching forward with thick synth that shakes your surroundings — the kind of beat that makes you imagine blinding lights atop a massive stadium stage. And Hyde knows it. “Life/ It’s a touch/ Everything is golden,” he deadpans. Vocal echoes begin chanting behind him. “Sharp shadow/ Clean dirt,” he continues, detailing a scene that loses its imagery despite vivid description, as he mocks his own words with a trail oh “Blah, blah, blah.” It’s an appropriate intro, even if there are moments of clumsiness in the track. “I Exhale” welcomes you back to the world of dance that Underworld seemed to forget on 2010’s otherwise dry Barking.
“When we came to do the lyrics for this, Rick pointed out to me that I should just see the world like I do my camera,” Hyde explained in our recent interview with the band. “This is what I’ve done for 25 years now because I’m unable to articulate how I feel with words. What I decided to do is use collections of words like objects to describe how I feel. So, in the past, if I was feeling happy, you knew it by the things I had collected. If I was feeling dark, the same thing. That’s what I’ve done to a much higher degree on this album, made those collections even more apparent.”
The resulting lyrics are biting, and pertinent, and present without ever demanding the spotlight. But this is 2016. Hyde and Smith are almost 60 years old. They slow things down for the rest of the album, letting moody music largely override lyrics. Surprisingly, it works. As tempos switch into second gear (basically a modest club beat), everything falls into place. “Motorhome” clicks with flickering glitches that sound like something off Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space. “Ova Nova” plucks a few digital strings that beg to be sampled in a future Four Tet song. Even “Santiago Cuatro”, a four-minute jaunt that zens out to Indian-accented guitar fingerpicking, asks for interpretive dance rather than underground club grinding.
The rest of the album is a beautiful, meditative, hypnotic reel into the vibrations of dance electronica. Arguably the record’s best track, “Low Burn” starts with glossy strings that give way to a thumping kick drum as synth waves behind it. Layer upon layer of samples enter — hi-hat, vocal hiccups, keys — everything blinking like a field of stars in a not-too-far distance. Closing number “Nylon Strung” makes similar use of audio snippets, swirling together sounds until they become an alluring spatter that’s both hymnal and freeing. Here, it sounds like a style that only Underworld can pull off with such flexible yet full production.
Underworld paved a new path for electronica with debut Dubnobasswithmyheadman. For today’s youth, that album may as well be a made-up word by a kid smashing his keyboard in a chat room. Those looking to understand the evolution of electronica across the pond will find that Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future will welcome them in nearly as much as Underworld’s debut LP. Forget about their contribution to Trainspotting or their work as musical directors for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. On their seventh studio album, Underworld aren’t looking to reinvent themselves or change the game. They’re coming at dance with the revitalized break an iconic band such as themselves needs, the type of distance from the mixing board that jogs their memory, reminding them where the inspiration for their beats came — and still comes — from.
Essential Tracks: “Low Burn”, “Nylon Strung”, and “I Exhale”