One of the most curious things about the commodification of art, music in particular, is the way in which certain kinds of sounds are assigned utility, cast in the role of aural furniture to accomplish mental décor. To wit: elevator music, “lite” radio, and, y’know, atmospheric British street music, which is best known in America as the perfect beats to boutique by. Though it would probably pain him to no end, enigmatic dubstep producer Burial (he’s still otherwise anonymous—paging Banksy) fits comfortably into the tradition established by his fellow moody, drum-machine-wielding countrymen like Tricky and Geoff Barrow of Portishead. Even though dubstep technically evolved from the ruffer, tuffer sounds of jungle (they share a grounding in breakbeats and buzzy bass drops), Burial’s take on the sound involves enough oceanic synth tones and melancholic vocals to earn his current reputation as the now sound of accessible, deracinated coffee house background music.
It’s too bad, because while Untrue, the producer’s follow-up to his self-titled 2006 breakthrough, succeeds on multiple fronts (as a subtle expansion of his sonic purview, a sucker-punch of a breakup album, and a compelling take on inner-city blues for the 21st century), as background music, it’s incredibly wanting. So, when listening to this record, turn it up loud enough to rattle your latte. (Subwoofers are pretty essential here). This approach gives all the subtle nuances at the edges of the mix—and they are legion—the opportunity to distinguish themselves from what otherwise sounds like a bunch of similar, stiffly martial beats and disembodied vocal melodies; this is ambient music concealing its cracked modern heart with a stiff upper lip.
As referenced above, the whole affair is structured as a rather straightforward breakup album, with the absolutely stunning lead track, “Archangel,” serving as an icy and ominous evocation of the risk and terror involved in trusting another with one’s own heart. The track prominently features Burial’s most significant technical leap forward, the use of fragmented and heavily processed vocal samples that are pitch-shifted and otherwise screwed with to achieve maximum gender flexibility and melodic heft. These warmly chameleonic shards of lyrical emotion contrast distinctly with the rigid threat of the beats undergirding them, providing a sense of unpredictability and, in a thematic sense, inconstancy. In places, though never more so than on “Archangel,” the effect is not unlike that of hearing a seasoned singer’s voice crack with emotion.
Given that dubstep’s junglist forebears were sometimes rightly critiqued for their wonkishly cold approach to the science of breakbeats, and that Burial’s rhythm sections have about them a rather brutal calculation, the processed pixelation and transgendered edge of the vocals he uses contribute an element of human drama to the proceedings. They evoke fallibility (the promise of effort and the desire to try), which is not something often found in music this computerized. The content of the lyrics does a lot to cement this perception, as well as the album’s breakup narrative. “Archangel” revolves around the most self-evidently joyful lyrics on display, though even it focuses in on the division between a happy reality and a desperate wish: “Holding you, kissing you/tell me I belong.” The front half of “Untrue” crackles with hope and promise, with “Near Dark” insisting, “I can’t take my eyes off you,” and standout “Ghost Hardware” sticking solely to the disembodied sentiment, “Love you.” (As an aside, it’s worth noting that the latter track’s title is an excellent description of Burial’s sound).
All these relatively positive feelings shift markedly during the pathetically titled “In McDonalds,” which features the album’s most identifiably gendered exchange: a woman singing “Once upon a time, it was you I adored,” and a man’s depressing rejoinder, “You look different.” This is followed by the record’s narrative centerpiece and title track, which brokenly centers on the line, “To the way I feel inside/And it’s all because you lied.” The voice is clearly masculine, and the sample features none of the groundbreaking vocal processing and effects that are in constant use elsewhere—building its status as the most unshielded and direct sentiment to be found on Untrue. The punctuating wail of “girlfriend,” clearly drawn from another source and featuring some processing, serves to drive the point home.
Examined at this level of detail, it’s possible to think of the lyrical content of Untrue as being a little emotionally simplistic, and it is, to some extent. Close reading of the lyrics can only partially illuminate the album’s emotional significance; the relationship the vocals have with the music of which they are a part is the true location of Burial’s uncommon impact. Machine music this unrelentingly intimate is worth the attention it requires.