The five-disc, six-and-a-quarter-hour long edition of Underworld‘s 1994 debut Dubnobasswithmyheadman (well, debut in the form that most people would recognize as Underworld, with Rick Smith and Karl Hyde teaming up with Darren Emerson in the wake of Underworld Mk I’s collapse) is the kind of thing you’d never recommend to someone interested in checking out the band for the first time. Lengthier than some bands’ entire discographies, replete with alternate versions and collector detritus (really amazing collector detritus, but still), it is an embarrassment of riches for fans but a very heavy meal for the neophyte.
Dubnobasswithmyheadman is justly a classic, sounds great here, but the much more digestible two-disc Deluxe Edition is an easier place to start (and boasts the same remaster, which to the band’s credit sounds fresher and sharper but not painfully louder nor brick-walled into oblivion). That version’s second disc compiles some of the early and important singles and the previously unreleased songs from the bigger version, a smart approach if not actually one that culls the very cream from the (much) longer edition, although it does have the advantage of not taking a quarter of your day to listen to. Or is that an advantage?
If nothing else, getting and devoting oneself to this kind of actually-deluxe edition allows the kind of deep dive that many of us seem to find hard to manage or justify in 2014. Editions like this one often work best when you come to them already intimately familiar with the original work, allowing material like the live rehearsal recorded in the band’s home studio (that would be disc five) to function both as a pleasure in its own right (that 18-minute “Spoonman”!) and a new way of approaching and understanding work you’ve loved for years. The bonus material here has been intelligently organized and, with one or two minor exceptions, very intelligently chosen (and given taste, we probably all disagree which of the 41 tracks here are those exceptions). If this isn’t everything of worth Underworld had in the vaults from this era, it certainly feels like it sometimes, a mark of how satisfying (and yes, exhaustive) it is.
Dubnobasswithmyheadman has at this point been canonized and picked over enough that there’s little enough to add, but in the context of all this other material, it’s kind of amazing all over again that Hyde, Smith, and Emerson came up with such a fully-formed sound and emotional tone from all these disparate directions they might have taken. While the supplementary material is great, there’s only maybe one example of a track so good you might wish it had made the cut instead; that would be the immortal “Rez”, especially ever since their live album indelibly connected it and “Cowgirl”.
Interestingly enough, most of the less dancefloor-friendly songs here are found on the original LP, like the lithely downtempo “River of Bass” and the plaintive, sparse “Tongue”. On Dubnobasswithmyheadman they serve to give the likes of the dark, cathartic “Dirty Epic” and the propulsive, buzzing “Spoonman” greater impact through contrast, but as the other four discs here prove, Underworld could have easily made an album that would have been much more conventionally club focused (and it would have also been astounding, but perhaps a little less distinctive).
Those four discs cover, in order, non-album singles and b-sides (including two songs they released under the Lemon Interrupt name), remixes, previously unreleased material (mostly rough versions, with some worthwhile new songs) and the aforementioned rehearsal tapes. While any fan who owns a significant number of Underworld releases will find some duplication, the band appear to have generally tried to avoid that common pitfall (“Bigmouth” and “Big Meat Show”, both of which appeared on the recent 1992-2012 The Anthology, only appear here on the rehearsal tape for example) while still being definitive.
There are definitely some oddities, especially for fans that weren’t around when some of this material was originally released (“Dirtyguitar”, for example, contains elements of both “Dirty Epic” and “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You”, not two songs you’d necessarily think to combine), and some revelations even for longtime fans: the sublime outro to “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You” appears to have been composed by adding the guitar riff from the fine, previously unreleased “Can You Feel Me?” to what’s tagged as the “After Sky” version of the former here, and more than once you can hear Karl Hyde trying out different lyrical and vocal techniques on the way to the assured, stream of consciousness sloganeering he fully pioneered on the original album, an approach that’s still one of the most striking things about Underworld’s work.
Whether due to the material available or preference, “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You” and “Dark & Long” get most of the spotlight here, with both songs showing up in six and seven different versions, respectively, across the five discs (although four songs from the original release only turn up on the first disc here). Normally just over two hours worth of those two songs might run the risk of tediousness, but the range from (for example) the pulsing, subdued album version of “Dark & Long”, the featured-in-Trainspotting synth washes of “Dark & Long (Dark Train)”, and the 20-minute, beatific “Dark & Long (Thing in a Book Mix)” are transformed enough that including them all doesn’t feel redundant or lazy. Of course, this is a band that once released a 65-minute US single half composed of versions of the same song that plays better than a lot of contemporary electronic albums.
The songs and versions included here are of such uniformly high quality that it’s a bit of a shame that they aren’t spread out a little more evenly, admittedly; the two alternate versions of “Cowgirl” that are here, for example, are among the best bonus material here. The “Irish Pub in Kyoto” mix is an instrumental take that occasionally sounds like a factory in a videogame (in the best possible way), while the previously unreleased demo (tagged, as everything on disc four is, with information that presumably means more to them than us, in this case “(Alt Cowgirl C69 Mix From A1564)”) sees a subdued Hyde working through a set of lyrics about a cowgirl “under a branded sky” that did not make the album version at all. It’s further in that Hyde appears to almost stumble on a few lines that would wind up either repeated or just looped in the released version (“call me I feel like flying into” appears here only as part of a longer monologue, for example) over tumbling drums that have a looser feel than the seething LP version. The result is something that is almost totally unlike “Cowgirl” despite being unmistakably the same song; in the old days they could have thrown it on the b-side as a “part two” and it would have been a cult favorite.
At the risk of turning in a review as long as the box set, there isn’t room to dig through all of this wonderful material to describe how many similar cases there are in this edition of Dubnobasswithmyheadman. But over and over again these discs subtly unlock new angles on the original, the way the instrumental “Dirty Ambi Piano” version of “Dirty Epic” makes those foghorn synths in the back almost holy. Six hours and 15 minutes is a lot of time to spend contemplating an album once, but this set argues in the strongest possible terms that Underworld Mk II’s first effort is well worth it; let’s hope that unlike some similar reissue campaigns they keep on track with this one when 2016, 2019, and so on come around.