Barking

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who likes, no, loves this album. I heard that Underworld were coming out with a new album, great! Then I hear that they’re collaborating with a bunch of outside producers on eight of the nine tracks. That doesn’t sound promising. But one of the tracks was “Scribble,” the single edit of which I’d heard and enjoyed thoroughly. Then I looked at the list of contributors and wasn’t much reassured. It was a bit like the Frogurt scene in The Simpsons.

So when the option to review Barking came up, I leapt on it. And then I heard the album, and fell for it immediately. So I wrote my review. And that’s what I started feeling like I was taking crazy pills.

I mean, go read those comments (I know, rookie internet mistake, but I have a point here). It’s not just that a lot of them disagree, it’s that they’re vicious to the band, the way you only get when something you love has betrayed you. We’ve got people questioning Underworld’s integrity, talent, intentions, possible level of corruption or senility (although can I just say to the people shouting “they’ve sucked since Emerson left”: LOL). I mean, partly it’s just the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory in action, but that’s not the whole story here. People really did hear something, not just different from what I heard, but to their minds dangerous in this record. And, at last if you go by Metacritic, I’m in the minority (the user rating is a full 2.2 points lower than everything else).

One of the things that happens when you talk to other music critics a lot is that you forget the kind of shit that people who aren’t as deep into the field still worry about. At this point, any writer worth his or her salt isn’t afraid of pop. But if you venture out into the wider world (like, for example, comments sections) you’re suddenly confronted with just the worst, most reactionary rockist shit, and you think “didn’t we deal with this years ago?” In a much more serious sense (much, much more serious than music fandom/criticism), you can see this happening with social justice issues; I’m all for talking about intersectionality and the privilege of progressive white people, but then you go outside of your circle of people and you find people just saying without noticing the worst, more horribly sexist things. That doesn’t mean that we should abandon higher-level concerns; it’s just worth having the reminder every so often that shit’s often a lot more basic out in the wild.

But again, this is just an album. And it’s Underworld’s pop album! A mere 54 minutes long, with input from outside producers that help tilt the textures of the album a bit towards then-current trends in various forms of pop electronic music (trance, a bit of dubstep, etc). To me, none of this was that big a deal; while the colours may have changed a bit (in a not unpleasant way), the structures still strike me as very Underworld.But if you’re the kind of music fan that defines yourself as much by your oppositions (whether Nickelback, Bon Iver, or, well, trance and dubstep) as by your loves, maybe you can’t accept these textures.

I also think the album gets nailed a bit for being “cheesy,” which basically means that it’s the most openly emotional, unabashedly positive record Underworld have made (as I write in my review, it has that in common with Hot Chip’s similarly unjustly vilified One Life Stand, which I also think is great). But I honestly don’t see how anyone who likes (for example) “Two Months Off” could have a problem with that part of this record (which leaves the “everything after Beaucoup Fish is shit!” people, which, again… do you actually like this band, guys?). As someone who’s struggled with getting past a certain societally or generationally mandated shield/burden of irony and snark, I appreciate how open-hearted Barking is (and really, how Underworld always has been).

But I don’t want to spend this whole entry trying to defend an album that I don’t think needs much defense; let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with just disliking this album (beauty is in the ear of the beholder, after all). The part that gets me is the people who go beyond disliking the album to holding it as self-evident that there’s something rotten or poisonous about it. I don’t think that they are ‘wrong’ so much as suffering under some burdens that the rest of us have managed to shed. But it’s still their honest visceral reaction, that Underworld working with certain kinds of producers or what have you is a betrayal. Basically, when Karl Hyde asks “can you feel it? Heaven” here, they can’t.

As for me, in addition to enjoying Barking on both visceral and aesthetic levels, I’m grateful to it for reminding me about the band. Remember, these album entries have compressed together years of listening and love for Underworld, and the dirty secret of music fans is that we never listen to the bands we love as much as we might represent ourselves as doing. By which I mean; it’s one thing if you’re not a fan of music so much as a fan of a band; I’m sure there are people obsessed with (random example) Pearl Jam who really don’t listen to much other than the band and various associated acts, all the time. But, I mean, I recently got a little bit obsessed with the Fall, including realizing that I owned 18(!) releases by them. I love the Fall, they’re one of my favourite bands. Do I go weeks, sometimes months without listening to them? Of course! Does that apply to every band I love, Underworld or Low or whoever? Yes. And I really think that most music fans can say the same thing.

So getting my hands on Barking was really the last step that leads us to this week here. I grew up listening to and loving the band, then realized I loved them, then realized I loved them enough to want to get everything they did, and now had a reminder of how much I loved them that set me off on my current listening spree. The main reason I picked Underworld and not another band for this project is because I can’t remember the last time I listened to one band so consistently for such a long period of time; and the last time I did, say when I first bought Mogwai’s Come on Die Young, it had as much to do with teenaged lack of options as anything else (I do love that record though).

But now that I’ve written an essay, I should at least give you some idea of what the album is like… I’m going to mostly leave the collaborators out of it, partly because they’re easy enough to look up, but mostly because for the most part I don’t notice them that much. Maybe you will; but then again, if you weren’t already taking these subjective reviews with a grain of salt, well, bless you.

Bird 1" starts things off very strongly, taking and even going past the intense lyrics focus of "Ring Road" and marrying it to a propulsive track that builds to the house-y, church-y refrain "there is one bird in my house" (the way the synths ring in with it and Hyde intones it, it feels like a middle of the dancefloor moment even more so than most of Underworld’s album work, which is going to be a theme for this album). If you look at what ‘happens’ in "Bird 1," it’s not a hell of a lot; if I’m parsing everything right, a young boy is bitten by a bat and drowses feverishly in a room; the song is his impressions. It’s in keeping with what Hyde said in 2002:

The little details fascinate me: like a photograph, you look back, you can say, ‘Well it was a beautiful day, we sat in the Botanic Garden and there was some big greenhouses, and you look at the photograph and you say ‘There was that woman who had the t-shirt on …and the little girl and the woman with the push chair,’ and those are the things that interest me. Not the big greenhouses that are fantastic and impressive.’ It’s the detail.

(by the way, after I’m done all the albums tomorrow I will have a post that gives sources for these quotes, it just seemed more convenient to put them all in one place)

The scene setting in “Bird 1” might be some of my favourite Hyde lyrics, period:

and a moped started up
sounding like a chainsaw
of tiny firecrackers
and he smelled tire again
a fly came dim
along the shaft of sunlight
coming through the open door
he watched it cross the room
and get halfway and then it
turned around and left, he laughed

"Bird 1" is both poppier and more overtly dancefloor oriented than much of Underworld’s recent works, but it’s actually less brash, exuberant, and just plain giddy than much of Barking. “Always Loved a Film" (the single edits seem more natural here, it’s such poppy material), with its endless hands-in-the-air refrain of "heaven, heaven" is more typical. Again, this seems firmly and wonderfully in the lineage of "Two Months Off" to me; and even to the kind of electronic music fan who thinks this kind of thing is déclassé, I’m not so sure that the kinds of textures that were used on (for example) "Pearls Girl" were any less current at the time.

I’ve already mentioned “Scribble,” but going from the ecstatic rush of “Always Loved a Film,” which is only barely tempered by “and I don’t know if I love you more than the way you used to love me” into the potentially bittersweet “and it’s okay, you give me everything I need” (which reminds me of both Adaptation and Louie) is a bit of a masterstroke, emotionally. It makes Barking at least partially an album about loving other people whether or not they can or will you you back, but, as the line from “Scribble” makes clear, it doesn’t confuse loving them with pursuing them in that disturbingly stalker-ish Hollywood way. It’s okay; you give him/them/us everything we need already.

And of course, the actual song is just joyous; Hyde doesn’t sound like he’s settling for anything, he sounds like a very lucky man. And the drums here - we definitely have to give High Contrast some credit here, because unlike most of the contributors he’s credited with co-writing the track as well as helping produce it - they are best drums I’ve heard on an Underworld track since “Pearls Girl,” at least in terms of my personal response.

After that dual peak, you almost have to slow things down a little bit, and unfortunately here we have what I think is the only real misstep on the album. In context, “Hamburg Hotel” is my least favourite Underworld album track (on its own, it’s second worst, behind “Cuddle Bunny vs The Celtic Villages,” because at least that’s just a bullshit little experiment; this is a good tenth of the album) and one of only two that I’ve left out of the versions of the albums I’ve ripped to my iPod. I like the Appleblim that I’ve heard, but here the traack doesn’t even work the way “Glam Bucket” did on Oblivion With Bells; it’s also the only track here that doesn’t really ‘feel’ like Underworld to me. It’s not horrible, it’s just bland. And as I said in my review, “On one of Underworld’s marathon albums it might have been a welcome detour, but with the rest of Barking packed so explosively tight it’s just in the way.”

Even worse, the darkly pulsing intro to “Grace" (I’m really spoiled by all the videos they did for this album) would have done the trick just as well if not better coming directly after "Scribble." It’s even got another reference to a waitress, something I don’t think I realized was such a recurring motif. The music is too loud, his body hurts, he’s violently in love; sounds like the end of the night out implicitly depicted in the “Always Loved a Film” and “Scribble” to me. He’s either hungover or heartbroken:

you leave the room
you leave the room and just for a second
the silence is
the silence is like a blessing

But be “Between Stars” he’s heading out again, driving too fast under a full moon (step back, step back) as the track swells, finally exploding as he asks with surprisingly poignant need

will you hold my camera?
will you press release?
will you capture me?

All of “Between Stars” takes place under that full moon, and the chorus is just huge, choral synths echoing while Hyde wails about “everybody crying on the telephone ringing.” And again, it’s more pop, more immediate, than most of what Underworld’s done, but I can’t even imagine what it would be like to hear this and grouch about it instead of wanting to dance to it in a room full of sweaty people.

But even “Between Stars,” as massive a tune as it is, pales in comparison with probably my favourite track on Barking (definitely the best one to run to), “Diamond Jigsaw.” Yes, it’s the one they did with Paul van Dyk. No, I’m not a huge fan of much of van Dyk’s work. But the way “Diamond Jigsaw” starts as the rockiest song Underworld have done in a while (that guitar riff!) and smoothly evolves into this gleaming, soaring edifice is just gorgeous to hear. What elevates it above van Dyk’s normal work, of course, is Underworld. I’m always skeptical of inferring biography from lyrics, but certainly Hyde’s verses about coming out of your shell, getting a bit of money, and winding up happy and successful (or at least on the way there) seem like they’re as much self-directed as anything.

But listen to the beginning of the track. Throughout, Hyde asks the listener things like “does it help, that you finally found yourself?” But right at the beginning, he asks a more interesting question:

and does it hurt
that you finally found yourself?

Yes, can take that in the sense of “oh, doesn’t hurt to find some money” or something, but I also can’t help hearing it in the compassionate sense of “you’re getting there, are you okay? is it hard?” and that impression endears the track to me.

At this point the party is basically over; “Moon in Water" (the other track co-written by High Contrast) lifts off several times, but it’s a softer flight, one based around the melody established by Danielle Short’s spoken, digitally fractured lecture on moon and water, sign and subject (I’ll admit, as a philosophy grad I kind of enjoyed the subject matter here). I suspect that she’s the "Juanita" from "Little Speaker" and "Two Months Off," but who knows? Despite the way the track lifts off from that speech a few times, though, it’s generally lower-key than the rest of the album, and the opening makes for a beautifully restrained transition from the end of "Diamond Jigsaw."

And so we come to the end of Underworld’s last album to date, with maybe the most atypical track they’ve yet done, “Louisiana.” I know people who think it’s inert, but I think it’s gorgeous; an actual ballad, with late-night keyboard tones and a beautiful vocal performance (digital quavers and all) from Hyde. It’s also the only track Underworld didn’t recruit anyone to work on, and my favourite video from the album. Maybe it’s just my love of quiet, slow songs in general speaking here, but ending Underworld’s most extroverted, most pop album with a deeply internal song wondering at/stricken by the intensity of emotion just feels right. It’s one of the Underworld songs I find myself relating too the most profoundly; like the album it comes from, if I were assessing it My World of Flops style, it would be a Secret Success.

when you touch me
planets in sweet collision
when you touch me
bullets in conversation
quietly violent
quietly violent

If I had to pick just three tracks from this album to give a neophyte a good first impression, I’d go with: “Scribble,” “Diamond Jigsaw,” “Louisiana”