Everything comes natural
Not everybody is around for 20 years or more, and not everybody who makes it that far deserves much of a commemoration. But questions of longevity aside (and continued productivity—2010’s Barking continued Underworld’s strong third act, and between soundtrack work and being the musical directors for the London Olympics, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith show no signs of slowing down), Underworld are justly a big deal. For years they’ve made excellent, emotionally clued-in, endlessly pleasurable techno, and in a lot of ways their blurring of the lines between techno and rock, dance music and emotional/psychological/observational narratives, home listening and club listening, make them the forerunners of a lot of what’s currently interesting and popular in dance music.
So when a band as active and prominent as seminal techno trio-then-duo Underworld puts out some sort of career-spanning (well, mostly) compilation, there are two opposite questions that mostly apply to two opposite audiences: what is there (for newcomers) and what isn’t (for longtime fans). Newcomers might know a song or two (cough"Born Slippy"cough), and given that even these days the compilation might be (at least at first) their primary exposure to a band, you want to make sure you hit all of the major moments and highlights. Sure, there will be, or at least should be, gems to find when you go to the rest of the work, but a good starter compilation should give you an idea of where a band has been and why they are loved. For the hardcore, though, having all of the hits might be nice, convenient, or even interesting, but they already have most of what you want to play for a newcomer. And we all have our little personal favourites, so the question is what got left off? What can’t we imagine the compilation without?
It’s maybe an attempt to address both questions that lead Hyde and Smith (operating alone since Darren Emerson, who they brought on board when Underworld slimmed down from a little-missed five-piece band to its current electronic incarnation, left in 2001) to release two very different compilations. I almost said for the band’s 20th anniversary, but that’s a little misleading, because on the one hand, Underworld started releasing albums in 1988 if you count the rock-band days, and the first single from their first album as what we know as Underworld wasn’t out until 1993. But for their last career-spanning compilation, they chose 1992 as the first year, so going with it here makes sense.
And oh yes, what about that last compilation? 1992-2002 wasn’t necessarily thrillingly novel to confirmed fans, consisting pretty much of those big major moments. Unless as a fan you didn’t already have “Dirty” (just an early instrumental mix of the monumental “Dirty Epic”, which of course was also included), or a few singles like “Bigmouth”, “Spikee” and “8 Ball”, you were likely to have everything on the two discs, and in the same form. And for newcomers, well, it did have all of the major moments, but those two jam-packed discs held just 16 tracks. This was Underworld at its sprawling best—the seven tracks on disc one alone averaged more than 10 minutes in length, which might have seemed a bit daunting.
For anyone who does find that side (or size) of Underworld intimidating, they’ve released the bluntly titled A Collection. Sixteen tracks, but only one disc, and with all of the single edits, 12 of them are between three to five minutes. And actually, in a similar way to New Order’s benighted Singles comp, that might be the reason longterm fans might be interested in this compilation as well—sometimes, as much as I love the spread and scope of Underworld’s work, it’s nice to have the headiest bits of a song like “Jumbo”, “Two Months Off” or “Pearls Girl” condensed to pop single length. The sequencing is a bit odd, starting with three recent collaborations and some recent singles, working back to material from their “debut” Dubnobasswithmyheadman and then going forward again until they end with material from the post-“Born Slippy” album Beaucoup Fish, but for the most part the material here is good. The new edits of “Dark and Long (Dark Train)” and “Mmm Skyscraper…I Love You” are more functional than anything else, and including “Downpipe”, their single with Mark Knight & D Ramirez, over (say) “Dirty Epic”, “Dinosaur Adventure 3D” or “Push Upstairs” (which is mysteriously missing from both compilations) seems a bit off.
And for anyone who does enjoy that full sprawl, or just wants a fair comprehensive crash course in Underworld, there’s the three-disc 1992-2012: The Anthology. The tracks here are in their full, longer versions (“Jumbo” is actually the longer mix that was previously only available on special-edition versions of 1992-2002). The first disc is identical to the first disc of the earlier compilation except that the kind of redundant “Dirty” is dropped in favour of “Cowgirl” (definitely an improvement). The second disc is also largely the same, except that “Cowgirl” was already moved to the first disc, and “Push Upstairs” and “Shudder/King of Snake” have been dropped to make room for “To Heal”, “Crocodile” and “Scribble”. Those three tracks from Underworld’s last two albums are undeniably strong, but it’s hard not to wish that the anthology didn’t get rid of two of the four tracks from the underrated Beaucoup Fish, especially considering “Push Upstairs” was their second-highest charting UK single, and “Shudder/King of Snake” is still a strong fan favourite.
What makes it easy to quibble with the admittedly very strong first two discs of the anthology is the third disc. On the one hand, it’s a nice idea; lots of rare and obscure stuff, including an unreleased track from the Dubnobasswithmyheadman era. That song, “Big Meat Show”, is interesting, but definitely of lesser quality than Underworld’s album material, and most of the other b-sides, bonus tracks and so on, on the third disc are more interesting than revelatory. Much of the material is instrumental (which tends to be less interesting than the tracks that also feature Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness vocals), and some of the choices aren’t ideal. “Oich Oich” is a perfectly good song, but if you’re going to take only one b-side from the many versions of the “Pearls Girl” single, why not “Deep Arch”, which probably could have fit in on an album (and weirdly prefigured the Field’s work)? Why not just take three discs to cover what the first two discs do, letting you add tracks like “Push Upstairs” and sprinkling the best of the third disc throughout?
But that sort of question is the one about what isn’t there. Both of these compilations offer an embarrassment of riches, and in very different ways excellent overviews of one of the few long-running, still productive techno bands out there. Hardcore fans will always find things to quibble with, but when it comes down to actually listening to the breadth of 1992-2012, it’s hard to argue with what’s actually there. And if someone out there is watching Trainspotting for the first time and wants to hear more from the band that did “that lager lager lager song,” it’s hard not imagine their head not being spun around when they hear the compact, potent versions found on A Collection. Well done all around, then. Meet back here in 10?