British pop-techno outfit Underworld crested creatively when the songwriting duo Karl Hyde and Rick Smith were joined by DJ Darren Emerson. The Emerson years, which reached their apex with the full throttle 1999 masterpiece Beaucoup Fish, were characterized by a chameleonic flexibility, with the group’s sound adapting to exhilarating rave throwdowns, dystopian dirty epics, and melancholic electro ballads alike. Following Emerson’s departure, Underworld didn’t land many attempts to recapture the fiery side of things. One reason their latest album may be getting such solid notices is because, this time around, they’re not even trying to.
Maybe it’s that it opens with a track called simply “I Exhale,” or maybe it’s that Underworld has in the last couple years put out radically expanded reissues of their seminal albums dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants, each featuring sheaves of B-sides, unreleased demos, and uncollected outtakes, but Barbara Barbara, We Face a Shining Future feels like a gesture of resignation. The album, which at just seven tracks long (and none of them 15-minute monsters on the order of “Juanita”) feels almost like a two-fisted EP. The album doesn’t overtly set out to impress as 2010’s Barking did all too conspicuously; instead, it’s a quickie slow burner, and if its ambitions feel scaled down, the duo comes away ahead for it.
The album’s title came from the mouth of Smith’s dying father, being among the final words he uttered to his wife, and the songs here hew more closely to the end of Underworld’s spectrum-encompassing “Stagger,” “Push Downstairs,” “Best Mamgu Ever,” and “Sola Sistim” (my vote for Underworld’s most underrated track ever). Even when the album indulges in backbeats and anthem guitars, as indeed the chugging opening track “I Exhale” does to oddly Talking Heads effect, the result is too muted and avant to qualify as euphoric in the sense that even the menace-peddling likes of “Pearls Girl” did.
Hyde’s stream-of-consciousness beat poetry, which comes off like someone attempting to linearly read the words left on torn-away telephone-pole posters, continues nosing through the post-industrial wasteland to seek out whatever remaining truffles might still be buried among the junk. “In a blue sky, asbestos rooms, corrugated rhythms,” he word-paints on “I Exhale.” In “If Rah,” his heavily reverbed monotone informs over a snarling midtempo synth hook, “Shoes of stars…tattooed shoulders speaking, you say/Fall before you fly, but I don’t look/And you don’t look old enough, to have suffered so much.” (Is he recapping the first Divergent movie?)
In the sense that the album’s title is both informed by death and incongruously the most optimistic phrase the group’s been attached to since “You bring light in,” Barbara Barbara follows up its ominous first heat with a symmetrical set of tracks optimistic only in that very Underworld zone somewhere between burnished and tarnished. From the ambling “Motorhome” (“Autobahn” with a flat tire) to the comfy “Ova Nova” (which sounds almost uncannily like an outtake from Janet’s Unbreakable, complete with cooing female backing vocals) and resolving with the expansive un-dirty epic “Nylon Strung,” Hyde and Smith manage pack an astonishing array of subtle variations on their emotional repertoire in scant few tracks.