With eight studio albums of atmospheric electronica under their belt — the latest of which, Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, comes out today — and both its members pushing 60, it’s tempting to refer to Underworld as the elder statesmen of EDM. That label is deceptive, if for no other reason than that there was never a time when Karl Hyde and Rick Smith weren’t senior figures in the scene. When they joined forces with young DJ Darren Emerson to release their ersatz debut Dubnobasswithmyheadman in 1994, they’d already been gigging together in one form or another for 14 years. They had a minor new-wave hit in 1983 with “Doot Doot” under the name Freur. They renamed themselves Underworld after a forgotten Clive Barker horror flick they scored and recorded two albums of largely undistinguished alt-pop afterwards. Both men were in their mid-30s by the time they hit creative paydirt — the James Murphys of their day.
And once they clicked, they clicked hard. Though they’re best known for “Born Slippy .NUXX,” a Trainspotting soundtrack standout that became one of the ’90s’ greatest dance songs and remains an indispensable staple of their countless live shows, Underworld have a catalog as deep and varied as any of the long, twisty trance/techno/house melanges it comprises. Smith’s production combines Floydian scope with relentless rhythm, conveying the sensation of motion as powerfully as anything since Kraftwerk and Neu! made motorik happen. Hyde’s breathy, often distorted vocals and elliptical lyrics alternate disarming emotional directness with decontextualized conversational snippets that evoke the overheard exchanges of strangers on the street — which in many cases is actually their origin, as Hyde would frequently take the tube around London, jotting down the drunken banter of his fellow passengers. Like their premillennial contemporaries Radiohead and Massive Attack, Underworld both replicates the thrum of modern urban life in all its messiness and conjures the feeling that this mess can be transcended, provided you dance your ass off.
Though Barbara is the duo’s first real record in six years, they were hardly on hiatus. In the interim between albums, Smith and Hyde worked with Trainspotting director Danny Boyle on the score for his stage adaptation of Frankenstein and the music for his opening ceremony for the London Olympics. Smith went on to soundtrack Boyle’s film Trance on his own, while Hyde cut a solo album and two acclaimed collaborations with ambient godhead Brian Eno. Their reunion sees them barely missing a beat, able to move mind, body, and soul as expertly as any Coachella-kid fave. It’s the perfect time to take stock of their accomplishments, two decades and counting, one song at a time.
10. “Two Months Off” (from A Hundred Days Off, 2002)
“It was just silly crap that hit the spot…and he let himself be drawn in.” As samples go, the snippet of dialogue embedded in the beginning of “Two Months Off” — a woman’s voice describing a crush developing from checking out the doodles on the back someone’s notebook — had more riding it on it than most. At this point in their career, Underworld had something to prove. With the 2001 departure of Darren Emerson, the youngest member of the heretofore trio who’d widely been credited with introducing his older bandmates to the dance-music sounds that reinvigorated their stalling post-new-wave career, the pressure was indeed on Karl Hyde and Rick Smith to draw their audience in once again. Thus “Two Months Off,” the ersatz title track of their first album as a pair, serves as much as a statement of purpose as a song. The result is as ebullient and unabashedly romantic as anything in their catalog to date. Centered on a B-flat/B-flat/G hook with shifting harmonies beneath it and the repeated phrase “You bring light in,” it casts the singer’s beloved as a luminous miracle of a person: “Glowing, walking in light, gold ring around you, the hues of you, the golden sunlight of you.” Any risk of the song tipping over from joyous to saccharine is eliminated by the climactic cowbell breakdown that concludes the song; the Field’s “Yesterday And Today” pulled off a very similar floaty-to-funky transition seven years later.
9. “Always Loved A Film” (from Barking, 2010)
From “lager lager lager” to “crazy crazy crazy” (see below) to “you bring light in” (see above), repetition has always figured prominently in singer Karl Hyde’s lyrics. But it’s never done so more revealingly than in “Always Loved A Film,” a standout track from their last studio album, 2010’s Barking. The words that get the most play here? “The rhythm” and “Heaven,” two concepts that for Underworld are largely synonymous. The track itself is one of the most conventional verse/chorus/verse affairs in their discography (they get reflexively tagged by critics for their traditional rock-songwriting style way more often than they actually write traditional rock songs), with guest producers Mark Knight and D. Ramirez adding a crunchy texture that befits the song’s structural solidity. Like “Two Months Off,” it’s a love song that uses the imagery of light radiating outward in a sleight-of-hand substitution for the intense emotion being directed inward. This time, though, the celestial metaphor is brought down from the sky to the earth by anchoring it to the memory of walking down a hot summer street: “The rhythm of keys swinging in your hand, the rhythm of light coming out of your fingers.” When the chorus hits, it’s a million miles from the elusive and inscrutable lyrics Hyde usually indulges in, hitting as hard and direct as anything on pop radio at the time — “Heeeeaven, heavennnnnnn — can you feel iiiiit?” could have been a Lady Gaga lyric. The highlight, though, may be the acoustic-guitar-accompanied bridge, which adds an element of uncertainty — “I don’t know if I love you more than the way you used to love me” — a la George Harrison’s “You’re asking me will our love grow / I don’t know, I don’t know” from “Something.” Both songs trust love to be big enough to accommodate doubt, bright enough to risk some shadow.
8. “Low Burn” (from Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future, 2016)
It’s not hard to hear this highlight of Underworld’s new album as a bold move on the part of Bruce Springsteen, since it sounds for all the world like the Boss hired Hyde & Smith for a trance remix of “I’m On Fire.” Working the same melodic range as Springsteen’s minimalist midnight-hour masterpiece, “Low Burn” trades its similarly titled antecedent’s confessional sexuality for murmured fragments of what sounds like an ad for a cellphone plan: “free…total…unlimited…time.” Hyde has always had a knack for mining the mundane for grand romance, and here he restores the promise of liberation that these and countless similar banalities have caused us to take for granted. The song’s melody is a relentless two-note pulse, its beat a gallop, the combination suggesting — as do many of their best songs, particularly in their ’90s work — a world glimpsed through the window of a fast-moving vehicle at night. Which makes sense: good dance music renders you a passenger along for the ride.
7. “Beautiful Burnout” (from Oblivion With Bells, 2007)
Unlike their many songs that invoke the sense of rapid transit sonically, “Beautiful Burnout” does so lyrically — but the effect is the opposite of the emotional-liberation-through-physical-movement vibe you might expect. “Blood on the tissue on the floor of a train,” Hyde intones in a low-pitched, watery echo, and after this dirty detail it only gets more sinister: “Sun goes down. Temperature drops.” And after repeating the title phrase twice, Hyde gets downright witchy: “Bird. Chrome.” The song’s foundation is a bassy rumble, its keyboard hook synths that stab rather than soar, like “Blue Monday” gone black. Adjectives like cinematic and widescreen have been thrown around to describe UW’s music since the Clinton Administration, but this is one of the few recordings they’ve done that feels like the soundtrack to a horror movie — a sister song, perhaps, to their Trainspotting hallucination highlight “Dark Train.” However, a muted, metallic drum break near the end proves that the rhythm remains a paramount concern.
6. “Small Conker And A Twix/You Do Scribble” (from Live In Tokyo 25th November 2005)
A decade into an era where EDM routinely draws crowds of a size and enthusiasm level previously reserved for, like, AC/DC at Rock In Rio, saying “Underworld is a great live act” is less of an argument-settler than it used to be. Knob-twiddling electronica act specializing in rapturous body music slays ‘em in concert? You don’t say! But UW live relies on an improvisatory alchemy that’s way less predictable, and way more intense, than your average when-will-the-beat-drop flavor-of-the-week DJ. And in the case of “Small Conker And A Twix/You Do Scribble,” a two-part aural assault that has never seen a proper studio recording from the duo, their skill really does need to be seen to be believed. “Conker” establishes the setting with a beatless, ominous soundscape, the sonic equivalent of the lights going down in a planetarium before the show starts. Then “Scribble” begins with a crash of breakbeats, as relentless and savage as anything UW ever recorded. Without letting up, they introduce a three-note melody as warm and optimistic as the preceding several minutes were cold and harsh. But this too is just a prelude for the track’s centerpiece and climax: an uncontrollable fountain of arpeggiated synth, sometimes coalescing just long enough to echo and counter that three-note melodic base before bursting out all over again. A heavily reworked vocal version of “You Do Scribble” surfaced as “Scribble” on 2010’s Barking, with a comparatively anemic studio recording of “YDS” itself relegated to the album’s two-disc limited edition; “Conker,” meanwhile, was incorporated into the “Overture” for the band’s soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein. But the ecstatic and overwhelming one-two punch of the two halves combined remains relegated to the band’s history as live, in-the-flesh crowd-workers of the highest order. (It’s available commercially on one of several live albums the band released for fans, though my favorite version was from Serbia’s Exit Festival in 2005.)
5. “Pearl’s Girl” (from Second Toughest In The Infants, 1996)
A rare UW banger that eschews the usual 4/4 thump-thump-thump-thump, “Pearl’s Girl” relies completely on jittery jungle-influenced percussion for its base. On this challenging foundation it builds a lyrical edifice that juxtaposes evocative, ecstatic glimpses of seaside celebration (“the water on stone, the water on concrete, the water on sand”) with incomprehensibly chopped-up stuttering and the endlessly repeated word “crazy.” The construction does indeed seem kind of crazy-quilt when you spell it all out. Yet the song remains one of the band’s biggest and most unifying anthems for a reason: There’s no better lyrical trick up Underworld’s sleeve than the moment deep into “Pearl’s Girl” when Karl Hyde leans hard on the phrase “returning to you” — and the trembling, transcendent chords that kicked off the song before completely disappearing do exactly that, reemerging from the scuttling beat and chanted lyrics like a last-minute rescue. What could have been claustrophobic suddenly sounds as open and expansive as the ocean itself.
4. “Dirty Epic” (from Dubnobasswithmyheadman, 1994)
The best track on what was for all intents and purposes Underworld’s debut album, “Dirty Epic” pulled off a balancing act with a preposterously high degree of difficulty. In a way it’s the record’s most retrograde song, with its verse/chorus/verse structure, its use of guitar, its undistorted and understated vocals, and its complete-sentence lyrical directness hearkening directly back to UW’s days as a proper band. But it’s also Dubnobasswithmyheadman’s most ambitious undertaking, a melancholy masterwork that alternately adds and peels away layer after layer of hooks and melody and miscellaneous electronics to create an unfolding epic worthy of the name. It’s a big-questions song, too, dealing with both sex and spirituality. Here Hyde uses the light motif that would become a leitmotif (sorry) as a negative rather than a positive: “The light burns my eyes,” he moans. When the haze clears, God is revealed as a weakened, broken presence: “I feel so shaken in my faith,” he sings in one of the final iterations of the chorus, which always climaxes in a shout of “Here comes Christ on crutches.” The body fares little better than the soul: “I’ve got phonesex to see me through the emptiness in my 501s,” he says unpersuasively, while the chorus sees him sing the phrase “I’m so dirty” not once but twice each time. Yet for all the darkness, the beat goes on, with Hyde’s inducement to “ride the sainted rhythms” and his memory of the time “we all went mental and danced.” Indeed, Hyde, Smith, and Emerson seemed to recognize that “Dirty Epic”‘s sense of the sacred gone soiled and sordid required an optimistic response: It’s paired on the album with “Cowgirl,” dubnobass’ single most celebratory song, into which it fades seamlessly.
3. “Born Slippy .NUXX” (from the “Born Slippy” single, 1995)
This is the big one. Plucked from B-side obscurity by soon-to-be frequent UW collaborator Danny Boyle for the closing sequence of his indie smash Trainspotting, this unrecognizable sorta-remix of what may as well have been an entirely different track (all they really share is the title) hit #2 in the UK charts following the film’s success. To listen to it is to understand why it became the band’s signature: It absolutely fucking bangs. Chanting near the top of his comfortable vocal range, Karl Hyde directly and repeatedly addresses a “boy” caught up in scenes of elegantly wasted glamour, accompanied by an indelibly lovely three-note hook and a relentless BOOM BOOM BOOM BOOM. Even before you get to the trademark bellowing about beer (“LAGER LAGER LAGER!”), the song positively thrums with the energy of a night out so intensely, intoxicatedly enjoyable that it’s almost frightening, like a roller-coaster ride you’re half-tempted to jump off rather than face the comedown at the end. As an alcoholic who would soon seek recovery, Hyde knew that feeling only too well.
2. “Jumbo” (from Beaucoup Fish, 1999)
“I need sugar.” That just about sums it up! Bouncy, bubbly, and as sweet as that lyric would indicate, “Jumbo” helped Underworld round out their three-album run as a trio in grand style. It features Karl Hyde’s sexiest vocal performance, cooing phrases like “I get thoughts about you, and the night it warms me like a little lost child” against the song’s gently burbling beat before quietly moaning “I want sugar” over and over. But it’s not a one-track-mind track by any measure — it’s way too silly for all that, thanks to incongruous samples from an American fishing TV show the band taped on tour in which its outdoorsy hosts compare notes about buying vests at Wal-Mart (“nice little vest — light!”) and the spots where they’ve caught “beaucoup fish” in the past. Like the “silly crap that hit the spot” in “Two Months Off,” the song conjures the sensation of crushing on someone in all its goofy, twitterpated glory. On an album best known for featuring UW’s most punishingly propulsive tracks — the paranoid “Push Upstairs,” the Moroder-biting “King Of Snake,” the furious fuck-off breakup anthem “Moaner” — “Jumbo” is an oasis of earthly delights.
1. “Juanita:Kiteless:To Dream Of Love” (from Second Toughest In The Infants, 1996)
The best song in Underworld’s catalog, the single strongest argument for their genius, isn’t a single thing at all. It’s three songs blurred into one, or one song with three separate sections; that it’s not clear which it is, or even where each of the three whatever-you-call-‘ems begins and ends, some 20 years after the recording initial release, is part of its appeal. The leadoff track to Second Toughest In The Infants, the sophomore outing of the electronica-oriented version of the band, “Juanita:Kiteless:To Dream Of Love” slowly unfurls, doubles back, and transforms from one set of sounds to another over the course of its 16-minute, 36-second runtime. This is a standard UW technique, and a hallmark of their live act in particular, but never before or since did they commit to it so expertly in the studio. The song begins with syncopated sounds scattered over a straightforward 4/4 beat, Karl Hyde’s heavily vocoded vocals painting a delicate picture: “your thin paper wings…your window shattered in the wind.” The music picks up steam anyway, eventually becoming a breakneck-speed cascade of descending notes. An ethereal melody is introduced, then wiped away, then slowly brought back for the song’s finale, a passage in which the lyrics sing of great potential kept just out of reach: “There is a sound on the other side of this wall / A bird is singing on the other side of this glass / Footsteps / Concealed / Silence is preserving a voice.” Though the beat is the same as ever, the tone is totally different, as if the ground shifted beneath the listener’s feat. The song concludes with one of Hyde’s most effective deployments of his observational writing technique: He simply sat and recorded himself listing the colors of passing cars, played it back at high speed, slowing down the occasional entry in the list as if it contained some special, unknowable meaning: “and blue…and blue…and blue…and blue.” It’s inkblot lyricism, reflecting back what you bring to it, giving you what you want out of it, be it melancholy, sensuality, mystery, or pure rhythm. In other words, it’s the essence of Underworld.