The idea isn’t to approach Untrue as a dubstep record, but as a record, period. This should be true for all music, but Untrue isn’t like all other music.
One could say that Burial’s most noteworthy achievement thus far is his sustained anonymity. In an age of MySpace pages, blogs, Google-retrieved images, YouTube, and Wikipedia, it is admirable that Burial has remained largely unknown even as his music becomes more widely circulated. Another could remark that Burial will be remembered as the person who was most responsible for introducing dubstep. a largely UK-centric dance sub-genre that shares roots in drum and bass, 2-step, and UK Garage, to virgin ears. And then I could say that no one really gives a rat’s ass, because the reality is that these preoccupations are mostly irrelevant, and at best are nothing more than PR softballs lobbed at unsuspecting journalists. What is relevant is what Burial sounds like, why it’s relevant in 2007, and what makes it beautiful.
Burial, the 2006 self-titled debut that transformed its namesake into an internet celebrity overnight, topping Wire’s year-end albums list and crashing a couple more, is an album that plants its focus squarely on its individual elements. The pitches of each snare’s click, crack or thwack varies from song-to-song, as do the sounds used for hi-hats, resembling everything from a gun cartridge being loaded to jingling change. Bass and keyboard drones reveal subtle differences despite cursory similarities. These minutiae are each so specific, so separate, and yet so complementary in tone and approach that Burial succeeded primarily by showing its seams, a rarity among electronic albums in the 21st century.
Where Untrue begins to distinguish itself from its predecessor is in its seamlessness. By the time the beat drops on “Ghost Hardware", a keyboard duplicating the effect of a church choir and a clenched-jaw R&B vocal have already provided the track with its aura. The drums act like train tracks for a subway car, rickety blocks of wood giving the melody its motion. When the buzzing bass tear and a flurry of “love you” and “hold on” samples, samples that may be sung from somebody falling into a bottomless cavern, join the introductory motif, they congeal into a gauzy whirlpool, albeit one that is small enough for you to visualize, and intimate enough for you to feel close to it.
Intimacy is crucial. Say what you will about the singularity of Burial, it eschewed the person in favor of their surroundings; the chiming touchtone of “Wounder", the smothered moving traffic of “Southern Comfort". Untrue doesn’t just hone in on humanity, it holes up inside of it. The caricature on the cover could very well be the protagonist of a loose narrative, but Untrue is far too nebulous to provide answers to any theories or hypotheses. Unlike Burial, whose technical obsession felt so pronounced, the blurred edges of Untrue’s songs make them feel personal. You can’t communicate with inanimate objects, which is why you can’t have a human connection with Burial.
That is why the human voice, the most striking change in Burial’s sound, renders Untrue superior to its predecessor. You still live in Burial’s world, but now you’re an active participant in it, and that interaction can cause an affection that Burial simply could not. In a weird way, it’s similar to how you can intimate the pain of singer-songwriters as Stevie Nicks croaking, “You were very good” on “Angel", Van Morrison belting “Through the viaducts of your dreams” on “Astral Weeks". As with them, Burial imparts massive emotional weight through vague phrases and foggy sentiments. “Archangel” only possesses a series of clipped phrases, some difficult to parse: “holding you,” which sounds like “wouldn’t be alone”, “tell me how blue". But Burial warps theses samples, cupping his hand over the mouth of the singer when he recites the “you", making the “wouldn’t be alone” sound like it was sung by a baby chick through a rolled piece of paper. This technique gives these samples more emotional weight than they were originally intended. Who sung them is meaningless; it’s who is distorting them that becomes meaningful.
The sentiment is powerful; the soft strands of straining song, the weeping keyboards, the foreboding bass, the caroming skip of the drums, establish an environment of tangible longing, distrust, and reflection. Towards the end of “Archangel", when the computerized Haddaway (or what sounds like him) sings “if I trust you” you know what he’s talking about. It’s skepticism of your partner, your friends, everyone. This isolation never feels more powerful than it does on Untrue’s beatless, pseudo-ambient songs. The pressure-puncturing cooing of “Endorphin” is like crying yourself to sleep, “In McDonalds’” placid tones could be the soundtrack to someone drinking coffee in an empty McDonalds, like the hitman in Fallen Angels, all alone in a city that’s swallowed you whole. These tracks do more than act as interludes supporting Untrue’s linearity, they signify that Burial has finally learned that melody is just as essential as the sonic details.
Focusing on this dubstep record or that dubstep record, searching for precedents, and determining Burial’s “authenticity” is the equivalent of Leonard Shelby searching for his wife’s murderer. You’re always going to find a different “John G". The idea isn’t to approach Untrue as a dubstep record, but as a record, period. This should be true for all music, but Untrue isn’t like all other music. It’s you: alone, naked, beautiful, ugly, now.