One half of Underworld goes solo and avoids the two main pitfalls of doing so, redundancy and pointless novelty.
It's natural to be little suspicious of solo albums, especially the first solo album by someone who's productively worked in a group setting for years (and maybe extra especially when that group is still a going concern?). Popular music has a rich, sometimes hilarious history of musicians who are famous and/or beloved ditching their usual collaborators, at least temporarily, for all sorts of reasons. But often those reasons range from pointless to megalomaniacal, and not even fans tend to like the results in those cases.
The good news, then, is that Karl Hyde doesn't sound like he's gone solo (or ostensibly solo, at least; here he's working with Leo Abrahams instead of Rick Smith) because his day job had stopped doing good work, he felt like he needed more of the spotlight, or was somehow stifling his creativity, or anything like that. True, only the brief, drifting "Cut Clouds" really sounds like it would fit on an Underworld album (as an interlude, such as "Skym", "Good Morning Cockerel", and so on), but most of the songs here are the same kind of intriguing half-step away from Hyde's usual metier as Jónsi's excellent Go album was from Sigur Ros's music.
The key to the vast majority of Underworld's work as a trio and then as a duo is propulsion. Even when their songs are slightly less dancefloor oriented or when Hyde is untapping his stream of consciousness in less emphatic fashion, Underworld songs are always moving forward, forward, forward. Edgeland, in conception and in name an exploration of life out on the margins instead, rather determinedly resists the idea of propulsion in general. There are refrains and melodies, often quite lovely ones, and the music is absorbing and gorgeous on a moment-by-moment basis. But these little explorations are more interested in wading into the dreamier end of Hyde's observational flow, and in presenting interesting/beautiful sounds for examination, than in making anything you'd sing along to. In some ways, Edgeland feels like it's more about poetry and sound design than songwriting.
That's not really a complaint; both the poetry and the sound design are top notch, and they give this album's songs a wonderful painterly quality. To the extent that Edgeland nods to genres, it partakes in small ways of both synth pop and chamber pop, but the result isn't really a hybrid. It's hard to say exactly what tracks like the romantic reverie "Your Perfume Was the Best Thing" or the early-morning ache of "Slummin' It for the Weekend" are, let alone the opening "The Night Slips Us Smiling Underneath Its Dress" as it's propelled along by a random-seeming piano loop or the sprawling, gently soaring "Shadow Boy". With relatively minor shifts in sonic tone and emphasis, maybe some of these, like "The Boy With the Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers" or "Shoulda Been a Painter", would be Underworld songs, but they don't feel lacking or undercooked, just different. It's Hyde's reflective singer/songwriter album, except that he and Abrahams are more adventurous and inventive sonically and compositionally than that makes it sound.
Did Hyde need to switch collaborators to make these songs? Maybe not, but he and Abrahams have done a wonderful job, and certainly whether or not Smith had been involved it would have been weird and maybe even off-putting to release Edgeland as an Underworld album. Formed out of Hyde's love for cities and the humanity that exists there, these vignettes and impressions are a small-scale kind of triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. The tightrope solo albums have to walk is between being, on the one hand, redundantly close to the artist's day job and, on the other, aimlessly novel in comparison just for the sake of restlessness or novelty. Edgeland is neither: it's fully realized and identifiably from one half of Underworld while clearly and immediately being its own thing with its own charms. The result is an album that's likely too oblique for mass appeal, but that should be treasured both by anyone who has a taste for these kinds of self-contained, gorgeously appointed sonic miniatures and by Underworld fans who appreciate Hyde's dreamier poetic side. Underworld is unquestionably the more "important" facet of Hyde's work for now, but with this album he shows that his solo stuff is a wonderful addition to that, not a distraction or detraction from it.
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