There was a moment, when MTV was still Kind of a Big Deal, when it stuck Autechre next to Goldie and Aphex Twin next to Dr. Octagon, when the word “electronica” didn’t get laughed out of the room, that the name Underworld carried at least the cachet of the boy bands it shared the airwaves with. MTV’s Amp showcased a collection of the electronic hitmakers of the day, and Underworld found plenty of time in Amp‘s playlists; early on, “Cowgirl” showed up an awful lot, and “Pearl’s Girl” got plenty of push too. Underworld was finding an audience with an accessible-yet-authentic sound that appealed to pop listeners and techno-purists alike, enjoying the sort of slow-burning increased sales and notoriety that many electronic acts of the day would have killed for.
Of course, then “Born Slippy .NUXX” happened and everything blew up. “Born Slippy .NUXX” was on what felt like every episode of Amp. “Born Slippy .NUXX” showed up on modern rock radio. “Born Slippy .NUXX” took over UK airwaves. “Born Slippy .NUXX” made a dent on US charts. For better and worse, the name Underworld was synonymous with “LAGERLAGERLAGER”, and Underworld-as-short-lived-phenomenon was born.
Beaucoup Fish is a product of that phase of Underworld’s career, a time when they were trying to figure out what to do with a huge audience, a big budget, and, for perhaps the first time, the burden of tremendous expectations. The result of all of that is a version of Underworld that’s simultaneously bigger and more streamlined, a version of Underworld that finds Karl Hyde doubling down on his beat-poet-of-the-club vocal style while trimming down the experimental tendencies that Hyde, Rick Smith, and Darren Emerson would previously engage in. The longest track is a little shorter than on previous albums, the beats are more straightforward, the beatless tracks have more words, and Hyde’s voice spends most of its time out in the front of the mix. Beaucoup Fish is peak Underworld in the way that we think of Underworld as a reflex, before the memory kicks in of just how creative and uncommercial they can actually be.
That it is near-uniformly brilliant is almost an afterthought; every track so neatly encapsulates an aspect of Underworld’s personality that it just about stops being extraordinary. That said, it is largely brilliant, an album with highs that eclipse anything else in the band’s now-extensive discography and lows that still feel intentional and somehow necessary.
“Cups” is the epic opener in the vein of “Juanita/Kiteless/To Dream of Love”, though it’s shorter and simpler, a lush and mellow synth workout that eventually transitions to full-on frenetic dance music, both sides of which are sonically crisp and utterly absorbing. “Push Upstairs” is the obvious single choice as Hyde delivers a “Pearls Girl”-esque shoutscape over the top of a beat that lives just this side of tripping over itself. “Jumbo” soars and twinkles, existing practically as electronic easy-listening, seven minutes of bliss. “King of Snake” takes an iconic Giorgio Morodor bassline and transforms it into the modern, pulsing, relentless deep house of “King of Snake”.
And on it goes. On past the bubbling waters of “Winjer”, past the breakbeat word collage of “Bruce Lee”, past the pure, wordless beat workout of “Kittens”, right into “Moaner”, a track that’s a lot like “Born Slippy .NUXX” except somehow more. There’s a quick moment in “Moaner” where the primary beat drops out and the beat is just heartbeat-rhythm bass pads and crash cymbals, banged out while Hyde continues to rant like a lunatic as if nothing is changing. For a split second at the end of this passage the pads and cymbals fly off the beat, and it sounds as if the track is about to fall completely apart, but then that four-on-the-floor kick shows back up and everything goes back to normal. Underworld is making a point here, it’s a man-behind-the-curtain moment, letting us in on just how easily all this slick professionalism could fall apart.
It did, of course, fall apart, if just a little bit. Emerson, widely credited as the man responsible for “Underworld Mk2” — that is, the moment Underworld transformed from a pair of struggling synthpoppers to would-be electronic royalty — left shortly following the album’s release, citing not acrimony so much as boredom. The spirit and lessons he brought to Hyde and Smith never left, however, as they would go on to have a long and prolific career making mainly the sort of music they made when Emerson was around. Their latest album, Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future is as strong as they’ve been in some time, as a matter of fact, the sort of statement artists make when they know their popularity’s peak is behind them, freeing them to make, well, whatever they want really.
The reissue treatment that Beaucoup Fish has received includes a four-CD “Super Deluxe” edition of the album, which is the version that PopMatters has been provided for review. The 12″-by-12″ box makes it feel like a fancy vinyl box set, which is fun, but most of the space of the box is taken up by packaging and an “art book” that comes off as too slick by half, variations on the Beaucoup Fish-era cover art mixed with number-based facts designed to make us uneasy about overpopulation, our environment, and so on. It’s fine, but not exactly the sort of thing you’ll keep on your coffee table despite its size.
The music on the extra discs is about what you’d expect: one disc of outtakes (and a B-side thrown in for good measure) and two discs of mostly-previously-released remixes of the album’s singles. The outtakes are fascinating, if somewhat disposable: they show us formative looks at many of the songs on Beaucoup Fish alongside a collection of ideas that didn’t quite make the final cut. Of particular note is the “Ricks 1st Dobro Mix” of “Bruce Lee”, which adds some wonderful slide guitar workings to a variation on the original track. It would have sounded out of place on the album, but on its own merits, it may actually be superior to the original as it feels more like a fully-formed song. “UW Orange Bed (Sept97)” takes the beautiful chaos of the end of “Cups” and stretches it out to seven minutes with a new vocal line from Hyde. The very strange “Yeah Plan (From A1385)” is what sounds like a live jam with drums, bass, and some slight and distant synth work. An alternate take of “Something Like a Mama” doesn’t change the construction too much, but extending the run time to ten minutes allows it some time to breathe and stretch.
Nothing here is mind-blowing, really, but it’s a fine disc to play front-to-back, playing out a little like a bootleg early version of Beaucoup Fish. It’s Beaucoup Fish but closer to the aesthetic of Second Toughest in the Infants or Dubnobasswithmyheadman, all tangents and experiments with the occasional blast of pop wonder.
The two discs of are, for their part, fairly unwieldy, particularly when there are so many repeated tracks — six versions of “King of Snake” and five versions of “Bruce Lee” take up more than half the runtime of the two discs. There are some clear standouts, though, particularly on the first disc: The “Salt City Orchestra” version of “Cups” nicks the bassline from “Billie Jean” and uses it to form the basis of nine minutes of club-centered retro-flavored bliss. Fatboy Slim’s take on “King of Snake” is incredible, basically what you’d expect (lots of sample play and tremendous beats) but pulled off flawlessly, actually managing to challenge the original for the title of the definitive take on the song. The second disc of remixes is largely club-centered, and a few of these versions have very little to do with the originals, save for some commonalities in the beats; particularly egregious in this regard is the pair of “Push Upstairs” remixes that close out the set, neither of which are at all identifiable as “Push Upstairs”.
That said, more for the sake of more is not really a bad thing, and Beaucoup Fish is most certainly an album worth examining in as much detail as possible. There’s not really a venue anymore for bands like Underworld to break through to the mainstream; aside from the odd Fat of the Land-era Prodigy tune on “modern rock” radio, the bands that defined “electronica” are all but absent from the airwaves in 2017. It’s a treat to travel back to a time when those artists and bands could be superstars. Excess packaging and book weight aside, the deluxe treatment for Beaucoup Fish is perfect for anyone ready to jump back into that era with both feet.