It would be really easy for Underworld to feel some pressure around the release of their ninth album (or seventh, if you want to ignore the two very different records they made when Underworld was a rather undistinguished synthpop band in the late ‘80s). Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have been making music together for a very long time, and while they certainly count as elder statesmen at this point, they wouldn’t be the only long-running act to feel some angst about the fact that they are probably mostly preaching to the choir at this point (regardless of the quality of their music). You can slip into the trap of trying to recapture your previous pop culture prominence without even noticing it, sometimes.
Or, if you’re Underworld in 2016, the band’s long and lauded history can have the opposite effect; this might be the most relaxed, subtly confident record they’ve put out in Underworld mk II’s history. Their last album, 2010’s maximalist, brilliantly beaming Barking saw Hyde and Smith reaching out and sending already written songs to a series of other producers. If the results had been weak, or even just felt like ersatz Underworld, there would have been a whiff of desperation to the project. Instead, producers from Paul van Dyk to Dubfire reflected back the most euphoric, open-hearted side of the band’s music, and the result was one of their most immediately ingratiating albums (not to mention, at the time, their shortest). Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future doesn’t feel nearly as busy. While High Contrast, who fitted in seamlessly on Barking’s “Scribble”, coproduced with Smith here, the record feels much more of a piece and is more of a slow burn, a “Banstyle/Sappys Curry” instead of a “Pearl’s Girl”.
It’s also the shortest record Underworld have made yet (just under 45 minutes), with an intriguing structure. Essentially two suites with a lengthy interlude connecting them and modulating the album’s energy going towards the finale, the song from Barking that might have been the biggest signpost to what’s maybe Underworld’s most openly emotional record yet (from the title, spoken by Smith’s dying father, on down) is the closing “Louisiana”, the most affecting ballad they’d ever made. Here the opening trio sustains a consistent energy from the opening four-on-the-floor beat and fuzzy, seesawing bass riff that introduces the sometimes cheeky “I Exhale” through the slowly building chants and sun-dazzled synths of “If Rah” (either “Luna” or “lunar”, bless that Romford accent) and the shimmering “Low Burn”.
What happens next might seem on first listen like a misstep, but it’s actually key to the strength of Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future. “Santiago Cuatro” is not the first mellow, guitar-featuring instrumental on an Underworld album, but at just over four minutes it’s one of the longest, it definitely takes up the biggest proportion of the album it’s on, and it slowly dissipates the dancefloor-friendly energy that opening has built up with little more than menacing room tone and some lovely fingerpicked playing. It’s not that the last three songs here wouldn’t work in a club context themselves, but having such a calming oasis in the middle of the album refocuses the listener’s attention, leaving them maybe extra susceptible to the emotional undertow of “Motorhome”, where Hyde repeats “what don’t lift you, drags you down… keep away from the dark side” like a benediction.
It’s a striking experience, but where the duo goes next really confirms the strength of this move; “Ova Nova” and “Nylon Strung” aren’t quite as softly paced as “Motorhome”, but they continue to aim square for the feelings of the listener. The former finds Hyde sighing “change your mind” over some of the gentlest euphoric surges Underworld has ever managed (honestly, I wouldn’t be upset if they stretched the ending out to double the song’s length), and the latter comes the closest to the incessant grooves of the opener while also being maybe the most unabashedly romantic song Underworld’s done. The overall effect is that Hyde and Smith locate the powerful, ineffable kind of emotions they’ve tapped into on a song-by-song basis before (“Jumbo”, say, or “Dirty Epic”) but sustain the effect over multiple, very different songs. The whole second half of this record feels like a warm hug, and after experiencing it, the contrasting first half feels even stronger.
Underworld, in other words, have made an album that is absolutely, unabashedly classic Underworld in a way that makes it clear that, while they have no problem staying accessible, it bears seemingly no desire to go begging for a new audience or to repeat themselves. It’s both pretty much anything you could ask for as a long-term fan and the kind of late-period album that is actually worth spreading beyond the faithful. Some excellent albums just feel like the product of hard, painstaking, stressful work. Some, like this one, just feel like artists who have reached a point in their history and craft that their work is just, to quote Hyde, a ‘radiant mirror’ of their selves. This is music for that shining future.