Untrue Turns 10
Not to go all Rick And Morty on you, but sampling in pop is a lot like parallel universes. In one timeline, Rick James is a headlining act, and in another, his most enduring hit is merely the backing track for “U Can’t Touch This,” one of the first rap crossover smashes, playing second fiddle to Hammer. And in another, it’s completely scrambled by Just Blaze into the title track of Jay-Z’s woebegone Kingdom Come, as far from a beloved hit as it could be. “Super Freak” is all of these things, graphing at least three historical points.
But with the resurgence of Stranger Things this past Halloween — where the inhabitants of podunk Hawkins, Indiana struggle to maintain order between two versions of reality — I was thinking about Burial. Despite the monsters who dwell in the alternate dimension the show’s kids call the Upside Down, that version of their town, where it’s always snowing ash on the desolate school or underground tunnels, is far removed from the ugly grimy budgets of such dystopian bombs as, say, Spawn or Tank Girl or Barb Wire. (No decade portrayed fuglier future-shock than the ’90s.)
Ten years ago this weekend, once-anonymous sadboy Will Bevan changed the course of history with his sophomore album, Untrue. Indie-rock, pop, and R&B all became markedly sadder and darker in the last decade, after he literally slowed down blatant samples of Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, and, of course, Ray J, at times making them sound like they’re singing from inside of a locked freezer. It’s like a photo negative of the 2000s’ Billboard charts. This is pop from the Upside Down, with ashes falling on it and unseen monsters around the corner.
What may have scanned as a neat gimmick 10 years ago could now be pegged as portending an enormous tectonic shift, which snowballed into the debut album from the xx two years later and causing a full-on avalanche once luminaries as disparate as the Weeknd, Lana Del Rey, and Earl Sweatshirt made themselves known in the most dirge-like way. But no one who’s sprung up in Burial’s wake is more creative or more elegantly beautiful. Neither Portishead nor Tricky caused the charts to sour down to their level in trip-hop’s heyday. And no one else sampled the jingle of shell casings hitting ground from Metal Gear Solid.
Untrue is a pop album scraped together entirely from echoes, shadows, ghostly resin and residue from beings and entities with primary lives. It’s got the most moving and gutting portrayal of a McDonald’s in history. Whatever you think of dubstep, or who epitomizes it, Burial fulfilled both halves of the portmanteau by default. His dubby sensibilities were in his mastery of reverb and little aftershocks from each sparse sonic event to rise out of the milieu. As for the “step,” Burial’s beats actually swing, like “Mambo No. 5″-level, even if they’re just husks haunted by the tunes they sampled. The clattering shuffle of “Near Dark” straight-up sounds like a Rube Goldberg machine attempting to jive and wail.
But it was those pop samples and that evolution towards melody that skyrocketed Untrue far past Burial’s eponymous 2006 debut and into the vaunted territory of the greats he made grayscale. For a dance album, Untrue has plenty of completely still moments, like “Endorphin,” where voices contort into surprisingly beautiful, almost trustworthy shapes, or “In McDonalds,” which plays like someone filmed a near-empty cathedral and then fed the audio through an old VCR. But for a work of great ambience and rich atmosphere, this record’s got some of the most sonorous percussion Westerners have yet heard.
The proper opening track, “Archangel,” infamously turns Ray J’s emetic R&B plaint “One Wish” into an offering for the Gods, where the rolling drum pattern rumbles and pops unlike any beat you’ve ever experienced — dubstep or not. There’s a confidence to that rhythmic bedding that contrasts completely with Ray J’s disassembled love-man schtick up top. It’s been arranged into a song with the care of McCartney, every note bent towards a newer, even holier vision. “If I trust you, if I trust you,” it now seems to say, as the song bends into a bridge(!).
Even though Untrue’s downcast reverence was partly inspired by the death of Bevan’s beloved dog, navigating the bonds of trust and love is its core (which isn’t all that different from what the xx was doing, either.) Other tracks seem to hinge on one word: The amazing “Shell of Light,” with its distant hydrogen bombs of bass and Pringles-can snare sound, is basically cascading repetition of the word “closer.” The nostalgic, beaty closer “Raver” is the closest thing on the record to a straight-up house cut, and underneath the pulsations, a handsome voice keeps repeating “easy.”
And they all sound like they’re greeting us from other worlds, even Queen Bey’s turn on the title song, an effect amplified by the various CD-skip effects and inconsistently amplified crackles of fuzz that Bevan’s overlaid on all his compositions in the SoundForge digital audio editor. Of course, Beyoncé makes us feel like the demogorgon here, when her shockingly electronically-deepened voice makes an accusation of deception on “Untrue,” sampled from her own impassioned “Resentment” on B’Day. Her voice takes on an uncanny-valley Nina Simone quality in this register, while a cinderblock of a beat cracks against itself behind her.
Bevan’s also a hell of a wordsmith. He doesn’t sing or rap so his true outlet for scenery-setting is his mastery of almost short-story-like song titles that tell you everything you need to know about a mood he was aiming for in just two words: “Rival Dealer,” “Ashtray Wasp,” “Stolen Dog.” These are more photographic pictures than anything on an entire Kurt Vile album combined. Untrue boasts “Dog Shelter,” one of its most mournful offerings (for good reason if you’ve ever visited a dog shelter), and “Ghost Hardware,” a combination that suits what he does at least as fittingly as the Who’s “Maximum R&B.”
As you’ve no doubt observed, Untrue was an indulgent writer’s wet dream, what with the power to command a fuckton of adjectives due to its rich evocations, widespread sample sources, and complex profile of tones. But it truly earns the bullshit; have you ever heard such a dark album that’s so warm and not foreboding? A loose-limbed funkfest that’s so shy and dawdling? Such a dense and varied embarrassment of tactile gadgetry you can feel in different parts of the ear yet leaving so much wind and space? Not to mention Burial’s sheer originality — stitching beats together manually without a sequencer and plenty of “slippage” in the tempos — while essentially crafting the ultimate love letter to the rave, trip-hop and drum-and-bass sounds he loved growing up in the fringes of the club?
What a trip — a meditation on fidelity and mortality and depression and dancing, with plenty of hat-tips to his favorite shoot-‘em-up games. And the whole thing was conceived by some kind of masked vigilante freak that went to school with Four Tet and liked to play Xbox in his underground lair. Untrue stands so tall that ten years on, Burial himself has declined to follow it up with a proper album after releasing two full-lengths back to back in 2006 and 2007, though his winning streak of two- and three-song EPs in the aftermath has been almost as astonishing from 2011 to 2013 alone: Street Halo, Kindred, Truant/Rough Sleeper, Rival Dealer, eat them all up with your ears, preferably on giant, world-canceling headphones. Compiled into a double-disc set, these could potentially eat Untrue’s lunch, moving further into fast-paced garage and lovely, sometimes drumless balladry.
But they don’t quite match the forthright audacity of Untrue. This subterranean opus stands as one of the most beautiful and originally produced albums of all-time and its influence and mystique only continue to grow, not least because we’ve still only collectively seen one photo of Bevan. He probably works at a McDonald’s by day. But would it really be a surprise for him to occupy two worlds at once?