The council houses in London possess an aura that is easier to feel than it is to explain. Often covered in fresh tile and paint and given attractive names, they contain many of the city's former criminals, violent children and sexual deviants. I used to jog at midnight and come upon the council houses, always devoid of life from the outside, yet teeming with rotten things behind its clean façade. Every night I would return to them, both repelled and magnetized by their unnerving paradox of innocuousness and evil, letting the ghostly atmosphere of the council houses take me over in some puzzling, profound way.
Whether he knows it or not, anonymous London producer Burial makes music sound like council houses feel. His eponymous debut in 2006 capitalized on the eerie sensation of London at night by taking the rhythmic patterns and instrumentation of dubstep, a chiefly British genre, and blackening the palette. The drums sounded like knives hitting steel; the record crackles evoked raindrops; the bass was so low that it seemed to operate at subsonic frequencies. Every so often, a voice would make its strangled way up the surface, crying for everyone in London who wanted out before trailing off into the unforgiving cityscape.
As a dubstep album, Burial did double duty by raising the bar and providing a solid introduction to neophytes, but it faltered whenever it moved too close to standard dubstep skank for comfort. Untrue--Burial's sophomore effort and masterpiece-- jettisons everything that kept his last record from being a truly immersive experience, ratchets up the emotionality, and comes bathed in an unearthly, ineffable glow. In an interview with Hyperdub Records, Burial speaks of conceiving Untrue in the dead of night with the television murmuring and getting lost in the music as he made it. Indeed, Untrue is rooted in time and place (don't try listening to this in the afternoon), but amorphous enough to invite the kind of fascinated exploration that kept me coming back to the council houses time and time again.
It's a good thing that Burial stuck to one concept on Untrue, because what a concept it is. The music retains Burial's bleakness and trademark dubstep rhythms, but every track now contains disembodied R&B vocals similar to those you heard on MTV in the 1990`s--think Keith Sweat, Faith Evans, or any diva or crooner who made a killing singing the same garbage over and over. Stripped of their original context, though, these vocal fragments take on a powerfully yearning quality, whose diction may be smeared into indecipherability but whose meaning is clear and true. It is as though all of the vapid, shallow soul music of the previous decade has come back to haunt us in our dreams.
In fact, yearning is the prevailing emotion on Untrue. I'm reminded of Jonathan Safran Foer's short story, A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease, in which he outlined punctuation marks to be used when words will not suffice. The mark that defines Untrue is the ellipsis, or for Foer, the pedal point (~), "indicating dissolution into suggestive silence." These songs feel like an outstretched hand, an attempt at communication that may be reciprocated or may fall unheeded into dead space. The bass drums seem to knock on something loose and wobbly, bringing to mind a jilted lover banging his palm on the steering wheel; the snare drums hit the counterpoints and then hang there with nothing else to fill the void. Sometimes the beats drop out altogether, as on "Endorphin," when Burial lets only a child's cry and a heart-busting ambient melody take us where we need to go.
Where we go on Untrue is someplace we only think we've been before. Trip-hop is the closest reference point, but Untrue is its own beast--a half-familiar dream with half-familiar elements. "Near Dark"s lame loverman refrain, "I can't take my eyes off you," is uncharacteristically despondent. The slow, undulating textures and diva vocals of "Ghost Hardware" may nod to mid-career Massive Attack, yet they're undercut by chattering rhythms that suggest a state of panic. Often, Burial beats Massive Attack at their own darkly evocative game: "In McDonalds" finds him painting a solemn picture of what it's like to eat at McDonalds during the graveyard shift, looking at the flickering fluorescents and the limp burger in front of you. He nailed it.
Burial claims that his desire to remain anonymous has to do with keeping his music separate from his personal life. So perhaps he's perfectly content to stay in the shadows for as long as it takes, yet Untrue bears the unmistakable mark of an artist struggling to connect. The young man on the cover... Is that Burial himself? What is he thinking? In "Archangel," the vocalist repeats, "If I trust you..." to no reply. On Untrue, Burial offers this conditional to us, reluctantly reaching out in the hope that someone will be listening on the other end.