Old Dogs, New Tricks
Was there a printing error on some great cosmic calendar nobody warned us about? If we go by electronic musicians in the late ’00s and early ’10s, we seem instead to get a taste of the early-to-mid-1990s. The Prodigy and The Chemical Brothers’ most recent albums salvaged their reputations; Moby’s prolific once again; Orbital were on the festival circuit as if they never left; Norman Cook is ubiquitous even if his Fatboy Slim persona isn’t. So let’s ponder Underworld, whose new album Barking aims to heal the sting of 2007’s mediocre Oblivion with Bells.
Bells hearkened back to Underworld’s 1994 breakthrough dubnobasswithmyheadman sonically and visually, and was only a mere shadow of the original. Barking finds inspiration in what followed way back when: “Born Slippy,” a fluid behemoth of a rave single that gave Underworld 15 minutes of fame and Trainspotting director Danny Boyle at least 15 years’ worth. While it should give fans pause that Rick Smith and Karl Hyde seem to be repeating themselves for the second straight release, “Born Slippy” was an exhilarating hiccup in their altogether pensive techno catalog. The suggestions of that sound on Barking, therefore, make this album a refreshing departure.
Smith and Hyde have perfected the art of front-loading Underworld albums, and here they manage to go three songs deep. The album’s first three singles (“Bird 1,” “Always Loved a Film,” “Scribble”) pretty much set up Barking for life. Granted, it’s entirely possible that’s a result of the superstar help on the album—after writing songs for it, Underworld distributed them to producers including High Contrast, Paul van Dyk, and Appleblim. Yet these songs are powered not only by 4/4 beats and synths that are straightforward by Underworld’s standards but by some of Hyde’s most vibrant lyrical posturing. He’s still a cut-up poet at heart, but lines like “Light up the darkness / I’m violently in love” from “Grace” and prominent refrains like “And it’s OK” and “Hey love” make him sound positively ready for a party.
In just nine songs, Underworld show surprising range. “Between Stars” and “Diamond Jigsaw” are their piss-takes on Eurotrash club music and anthemic house, respectively, while the more introspective “Grace” contains a rather shattering minor-key six-note synth figure. They even revisit their old habit of hiding sonic Easter eggs: “Scribble” is based on a staple of their live shows, while “Hamburg Hotel” hints at both dubstep and old Underworld epic “Mmm Skyscraper I Love You.” Even as you hit the throwaway vocal/keyboard experiments at the end of the album, you sense there’s really a lot to love on Barking.