Before I even heard Oblivion with Bells, Underworld’s first album (or their first album available in physical CD form, as opposed to a string of Internet-only releases that led up to this) in five years, I had already planned out a review praising Underworld. Praising them for their reluctance to follow nearly every one of their peers in the 1990s electronica boom in trying to keep their sound fresh with needless intra-genre interpolations. Praising them for keeping a low profile, hunkering down, and turning out unfussy, danceable tributes to digital ennui. Praising them for not embarrassing themselves in the new millennium as the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Moby, and especially Prodigy all have. Praising them for their consistency and self-awareness of their own métier.
From dubnobasswithmyheadman to A Hundred Days Off (with their characteristic “Born Slippy .nuxx” as an anomalous mega-hit right down the center of that timeline), Underworld were techno’s supremely dependable “B” students. Call them the white, British Masters at Work. Even at their very best (the opening stretch of 1999’s Beaucoup Fish) they may have lacked the showy innovation and raw talent that marked the genre’s “A” benchmarks, but dance music can be a surprisingly conservative genre and good headphone music can sometimes thrive on the sort of even-tempered professionalism that would risk clearing the dance floor. In that sense, I love Underworld the way many cinephiles revere Budd Boetticher, Lamont Johnson, or even Clint Eastwood.
Unfortunately, Oblivion throws a wrench into that line of thought, though it clearly meshes with their previous incarnations and eventually emerges as a listenable album in its own right (on headphones, naturally). The gorgeous, blue ennui that marked the varying tempos of “Mmm…Skyscraper I Love You,” “Pearl’s Girl,” and “Sola Sistim” is still present, perhaps even a bit more pronounced in the aftermath of “Two Months Off” (a blinding wall of sunny synth bliss that I presumed would portend a bright future for vocalist Karl Hyde, post-alcoholism). But the structure of the album reveals the band clearly wrenching themselves away from their debt to dance. The opening one-two of “Crocodile” and “Beautiful Burnout” is completely serviceable, though the overt harmonic complexity of both leans a tad hard on Underworld’s latent prog-rock underpinnings. On all previous albums, these would form the downtempo middle section before kicking off into something like “Rowla” or “Kittens.” Here, they serve as a kickoff that warms us up for…nothing.
It’s not like there wasn’t material to choose from. Underworld have been working at it for five years, and their string of Internet-only EPs are peppered with evidence they can still turn up the adrenaline: the live EP Lovely Broken Thing‘s opening diptych of “JAL to Tokyo,” a very worthy dirty epic (included as a bonus track on the iTunes version, thankfully), and “Billy Goat,” a pistons-pumping cyclone of synthesized drum riffs, certainly shames “Crocodile”/“Beautiful Burnout” for pogo-sticking momentum. But the more one listens to Oblivion, the more the fatalism of their song titles becomes apparent. A transition has taken place and Underworld has apparently now moved on from dance music, a move many expected them to take when their significantly younger collaborator Darren Emerson left the band in 2000.
As for maintaining the stasis of their heretofore dependable career, only “Ring Road” really upsets the apple cart, but no more than did “Bruce Lee” on Beaucoup Fish. In both, Hyde clumsily assimilates his stream of consciousness word jazz with hip-hop beats, never really finding a synthesis between the two. Whereas the “life kid, suck the box” refrain of “Bruce Lee” registered as Underworld’s version of a novelty gag, the bemused street scene portraiture of “Ring Road” is lumbering at best. But, like the rest of the album, the content of “Ring Road” remains Underworldian even when the form diverges (and by content, I mean the subtle pessimistic undertow of their music, not the slashed and hacked advertising copy that forms their lyrical content).
By album’s end, they’re alternating elegant, beautiful piano noodlings (“Good Morning Cockerel,” in which one can still detect the influence of Gabriel Yared, with whom they collaborated on the soundtrack to Breaking and Entering) with throwbacks to their 1980s pop-rock era (the guitar-centric “Boy, Boy, Boy”), gluing everything together with truly insignificant filler (“Cuddle Bunny vs. the Celtic Villages”). Anything but dance music, it seems, though their insistent doldrums are often enough to carry listeners through the entire stretch if only to reach the even-tempered “Best Mamgau Ever.” With Oblivion, Underworld have cashed in the hard-fought credibility they earned through an until-now consistent career, but the result is still more fascinating than the efforts of those still seeking credibility of their own.