You’d have to be a really staunch emotion-denialist to not be moved by Burial’s music. While it’s a kinetic criss-cross of what we used to call two-step and what we probably need to stop calling dubstep, it shares very little with club music’s characteristic gurning embrace. It’s not meant for you to shake your body. Instead, Burial wants to move something a bit deeper. Something a bit closer to home. Something you’d probably be too embarrassed to admit to.
Every single second of Burial’s corpus is sublime. All of it. He deals in bittersweet blends: trembling vocal snippets punctuated by nervy stop-start beats; melted strings embalmed in ambient gloom. Tracks like the debut’s “U Hurt Me”, “Shutta”, and the candid fragments of “Archangel” are some of the most genuinely beautiful and beguiling pieces of music of the century so far. And you know what? That isn’t necessarily an overstatement. These aren’t tracks that you rant about and rave to (they’re too hard to beatmatch to for a start). Instead, they’re broken little symphonies, and you can only really talk about them with a hushed, solemn reverence.
All three tracks on Street Halo are even more compromised, even more ambiguous, than anything we’ve heard from Burial before. They seem to exist outside of our conventional understanding of production values – neither hi-fi nor lo-fi, but some burnt-out sonic middle ground that exceeds both and which answers to neither. It’s the same principle that runs through the music itself. And, as much as it’s really easy to fall into the trap of weepy adolescent schmaltz, Burial’s shattered appeal is one to which you cannot help but relate. With Street Halo, he continues to make beautiful, relevant, completely non-partisan music that stands outside ghettoising genre divides.
“Street Halo” recalls “Moth”, or Untrue-closer “Raver”. Here, a blunt 4/4 house beat pummels through, and hi-hats puncture, a smeared, distorted haze. The string sounds sob. They sound like warped G-Funk samples played on a broken boom box. It’s like Dre on anti-depressants.
After about a minute, the bass drops. It’s confusing: dense but not warm, unclear but not unpleasant, like being confronted by the ruffled memory of all the nights out you’ve ever been on. But, of course, it’s the cooing siren-like vocal sample that wins out. Her words aren’t clear. Does she say “I’ll never forget you…”? Whatever it is she’s getting at, it complements the prevailing sense of upset ambiguity, providing glints of light amid the gloom. It’s a ruined bit of bliss.
“NYC” is like watching your most barren disappointments played out in a weirdly comforting slow-motion replay. Indeed, at 115bpm it’s one of Burial’s slowest ever offerings. And at almost eight minutes it’s his longest. But it’s locked between two different worlds – too quick to skank alongside the trip-hop mastered by the boys from Bristol, too slow to make sense on a dancefloor. It’s a hazy sludge.
And she won’t go away. But we don’t really want her to. What is she singing about this time? Did she say “they say he’s in love when I’m around…”?. Does she complain that “[she’s] not sleeping…”? She’s singing above a swishing, buzzing synth pad which is periodically interrupted by a lonely cowbell. It comes in towards the three-minute-mark and then again before seven minutes—the ghost of disco percussion, all that ersatz joy confronted by its own emptiness. There’s some radar blooping at five-and-a-half minutes, indicating that we can make sense of all these little confusions, but it isn’t easy going. A warped, churchly keyboard sigh rears its head at several intervals. It’s upsetting.
Everything on “Stolen Dog” is submerged, but underwater dancehall this ain’t. There’s a shuffling sense of loss here, indicated by the title, and it sounds like it could be the prequel to “Dog Shelter” from Untrue. And her lament continues. Does she say “your love…is all gone…”?. Burial seems to have recorded her from some haunted crevice of memory, but he manages to distract us from this with some deeply padded drums – triplets of an inverted, prodding snare are matched by hi-hats in the right channel. But there are windchimes that breeze in towards the end, and it all finishes with what sounds like a child sweetly saying “okie dokie”. It’s the promise that everything will be just fine. It’s a fitting end.
Is Street Halo going to be a game-changer? Who knows. With the radiation from the dubstep fallout spreading far and wide into scenes both “underground” and “overground”, it probably doesn’t even matter. It would be a shame to spoil something like this with journalistic semantics. The most worrying thing about this is that we might not even be that sentimental after all. This might all be for real. Maybe.