[16 October 2007]
The cover is promising: black and white expressionism, shapes and smears of black ink superimposed on abstract photography—phantom tear sheets, from the looks of it. Immediate associations are encouraging: Underworld’s (electronic) debut, 1993’s Dubnobasswithmyheadman, carried a similar cover. (The group does its own visual work, under the auspices of Tomato, the design firm that acts as a “day job” for Underworld’s Rick Smith and Karl Hyde.) Dubnobasswithmyheadman was, not to put too fine a point on it, a stone classic. It still sounds fantastic, summing up in one disc the significance of an entire era: acid house music for the post-drug scene, slinky, sensual and sinister, with as much of an eye applied towards skillful songwriting and a sustained melancholy mood as the de rigeur rhythm and groove. Languorous and taut at the same time, it was enough to place the group (then a trio, with Darren Emerson) at the forefront of the burgeoning British electronic music scene, a position it enjoyed for the better part of a decade.
Dubnobasswithmyheadman was followed in 1996 by Second Toughest in the Infants, another stellar entry that upped the ante with a slightly more cerebral, confrontational tone. They finished the decade with Beaucoup Fish in 1999, a dark, occasionally disturbing but nevertheless magisterial slice of fin de siecle romantic paranoia. Appropriately, the US release date for Beaucoup Fish was April 20, 1999. I still remember purchasing the disc in a Circuit City in Medford, Oregon, looking over at a great wall of television screens to see live footage from the Columbine shootings, large as life and twice as deadly. For at least a minute it felt like the world was going to end—little did we know.
The late ‘90s was a strange place and time, filled in equal measures with optimism and cynicism borne of seemingly limitless prosperity and shrinking international horizons. Electronic music, as it was, fit well into this paradigm: this was the music of the future, broadcast into our homes direct from the crowded metropolis of a thousand cyberpunk thrillers and Massive Attack videos. Listening to the era’s music, I can still feel the same electric surge I once felt, a pulsing, palpable awareness of time and timelessness, of mortality somehow held in abeyance by the forces of shining metallic futurism. History was dead, stabbed and bleeding at the feet of Francis Fukuyama. A Clinton was in the White House and all was right in the world. Little did we know.
Flash forward to 2007. Underworld shed Darren Emerson following the release of Beaucoup Fish and the live album Everything, Everything. (Emerson has since gone on to an exceedingly unspectacular—if quite popular—career as a “superstar DJ”.) The duo’s next album was 2002’s A Hundred Days Off. After three pretty much flawless discs, it was something of a disappointment; hardly a bad album, but nowhere near as essential as any of its predecessors. It almost seems trite to complain about a group’s diminished output following the departure of a longstanding member, but the conclusion was unavoidable. Something was missing. There was no specific absence; the music sounded very much like Underworld had always sounded, with all that implies. But there was nevertheless something not present, a sense of scope and breadth that seemed scaled back. Underworld was still big, but the pictures had become small.
As soon as I saw the cover for Oblivion With Bells my pulse quickened: here, it seemed, was a statement of purpose, a firm commitment to reconquering the mental terrain of their previous albums. There aren’t very many—really, any—groups who still do the same kind of large scale big-box electronic rock music in which Underworld specialize. Most of their peers from the “golden age” of European electronic music have either fallen by the wayside—Orbital, Leftfield, the Prodigy—or, as with the Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack and Daft Punk, suffered similar crises of confidence. At some point the future began to look an awful lot like a paleontology exhibit.
Oblivion With Bells is not a return to form, and the boneyard specter hovers menacingly about the proceedings. The duo seem to have delivered confirmation of their fans’ worst fears, that the gradually diminished career trajectory hinted at with A Hundred Days Off has become a reality. Again, as with that album, the worst aspect of Oblivion With Bells is not that it is in any respects a bad album, merely a mediocre one, perfectly serviceable and peppered with as many small-scale pleasures as baffling misfires, but all the same instantly forgettable and damnably inessential.
The album starts with a promising enthusiasm, the one-two punch of “Crocodile” and “Beautiful Burnout” seemingly reminiscent of past, grand album openers “Juanita / Kiteless / To Dream of Love” and “Cups”. But the rhythm never seems to build up the appropriate head of steam: there’s a minimal approach to these beats here that sits at odds with the duo’s strengths, and Hyde’s vocal melodies are nonstarters. Hyde is one of the more distinctive lyricists in contemporary music, but the group makes a mistake in putting his contributions to the fore of the music on tracks like “Holding the Moth” and “Ring Road”, vehicles for his distinctively sleepy talk-singing that, unfortunately, don’t bear the scrutiny of repeat listenings. Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness by-way-of-Mike Skinner style is no better or worse than it ever was, but it was never designed to usurp the primacy of the music. It’s of secondary importance—important, sure, as anyone who remembers “Born Slippy Nuxx”‘s deathless cry of “lager lager lager” can attest, but not central. Oblivion With Bells makes the mistake of putting his voice front and center for too much of the album, with predictably diminished results.
There are also a suspicious few too many brief ambient snippets, with names like “To Heal”, “Good Morning Cockerel”, and, uh, “Cuddle Bunny Vs Celtic Villages”. Ambient interludes have always been the bane of electronic music albums: it’s hard for any listener to avoid the suspicion that they’ve been placed on the disc to pad the running time. These examples aren’t going to change anyone’s mind. There are a couple tracks on the second half of the disc that do a good job of conjuring an appropriately intricate sense of minimal melodicism, bringing the classic Underworld sound more in line with their contemporary descendents at the Kompakt label—“Glam Bucket”, “Faxed Invitation”. But then there’s also “Boy, Boy, Boy”, which might just be the worst Underworld song ever recorded: it wants to be “Stagger” (off Second Toughest), but ends up sounding more like a Stereo MCs B-side. Dreadful.
Instead of finishing on a strong note, the album closes with “Best Mamgu Ever”, a quiet and understated track built on the interaction between Hyde’s restrained guitar playing and a series minimal synthesizer refrains. Hyde’s guitar has always been Underworld’s secret weapon, and it doesn’t show up near often enough on the album. It’s a good track, but hardly good enough to efface the memory of the disc’s worst moments.
There is nothing quite so sad as seeing a once-great band falling into a long senescence. This is the Rolling Stones of Undercover. Maybe with the proper impetus they could see fit to reclaim their former vigor—from all accounts they’re still as ferocious a live presence as they ever have been. But with three to four to five years between albums, any such bid for continued relevance might be too far down the road for seriously contemplation.