Treble 100: No. 35, Burial – Untrue

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Burial Untrue

My favorite albums often feel like puzzles to be unlocked. It’s easy to romanticize records that leave an impression on us from the first note—I’ve had my share of pupils-dilating, goosebump-inducing moments with headphones on, feeling like everything I’d known or understood about music had changed in that moment. But I find myself drawn closer to the albums that, at least upon first listen, I don’t really know how to process. I think back to hearing Brainiac’s Hissing Prigs in Static Couture in high school and knowing at least on a basic level that the group’s manic, flailing noise rock was pop music, but I couldn’t explain how or for that matter understand why. Or the first time I heard Autechre’s Confield and attempting to figure out what was even happening. To say nothing of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica or Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, whose inscrutability only helped me develop an even deeper curiosity.

Experiencing Burial‘s Untrue for the first time didn’t feel like attempting to solve graduate-level calculus or meditating on a zen koan. But its strange and shadowy landscapes and disorienting, alien voices left me with a sense of vertigo—especially after how the album had been presented to me. A friend and colleague recommended it based on the idea that no instrumental, electronic album had impressed him in such a way since DJ Shadow’s landmark debut ...Endtroducing—a record that sent me combing through big beat and turntablism bins for years before I realized that kind of record just can’t be replicated. And Untrue, of course, sounds almost nothing like it, built on a foundation of UK two-step and dubstep rather than hip-hop, its tracks feeling more like stark and unresolved illusions rather than a more ornately architectural set of compositions.

I didn’t know anything about Burial in fall of 2007, but then again nobody did. Just a year prior, the UK producer had made his self-titled debut to a level of acclaim that surprised even him, but it all happened without the release of his name or identity. That secret remained well kept, even after a flood of praise from the press, and even after what felt like a breakthrough with his second album just one year later. Speculation around the anonymous beatmaker yielded theories that he could have been Richard D. James, aka Aphex Twin, or even the similarly anonymous artist Banksy. Burial didn’t perform live or do interviews, but rather crafted a labyrinth of sound for everyone else to lose their way inside.

Upon listening to Untrue, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that its songs came together in the dead of night, under a blanket of darkness. The South London producer had scrapped a previous set of songs he’d been crafting once he determined them to be too fussed over and technical, the process itself sucking the life out what he was making. So instead he gave into that semi-lucid, hypnotic, after-hours state, opting instead for a looser approach with its songs coming together more quickly and with less streamlined contours. Nothing here sounds unfinished, but there aren’t many pristine edges, its surface blurred in shades of charcoal.

The expressionistic sound of Untrue, emphasizing feeling over precision or even danceability (perhaps sad, introspective dancing?), is essential to its sense of mystery. The first actual song on the album, “Archangel,” is gothic and melancholy, with ornate flashes of crumbling grandeur against a vocal sample of a diva going in and out of pitch—as if it were a degrading transmission, soon to be lost forever. And that’s the hit.

Each song feels like it brings you a few steps deeper into a nocturnal urban labyrinth, but without the comfort of a familiar human face anywhere in sight. The ambient chill of “Endorphin” echoes with disembodied voices against vinyl crackles that resemble raindrops. The title track is spacious and serene, but there’s an ache at the heart of it through its repeated loop of the line “Because you lied…” “Shell of Light” has a hint of brightness in its softer-touch glow of synths, while “Homeless” initially feels like it’s pop music that’s been submerged, rising up for air after its muffled intro, revealing something bigger and more powerful, if not necessarily brighter. Yet the closing track, “Raver,” is the closest thing here to having a simple beat, just a skip away from genuine euphoria, even in its wash of melancholy—as if daylight were actually beginning to creep over the horizon.

In spring of 2008, Burial revealed his true identity as William Bevan—on MySpace no less. He was, essentially, just some dude—not Aphex Twin or Banksy, not Thom Yorke or Four Tet, though he’d end up working with them in the years to follow. Even before the big reveal, Untrue topped year-end lists and landed on the shortlist for the coveted Mercury Prize. It somehow feels more poignant in hindsight that this work of unspoken ache and somber, blurred vignettes wasn’t a publicity stunt from a celebrity producer. Hype found Untrue, and its influence ended up reaching well beyond what Bevan likely would have imagined. In spite of all that, though, it still feels like a seance captured on tape, a curious document that still leaves more questions than answers.

Bevan hasn’t released any other full-length albums since Untrue, though he’s had a long string of singles and EPs since then—and the occasional interview and photographic evidence that he is, indeed, still some dude. That distance is part of what contributes to the appeal of this album—that despite the acclaim, it still slinks away from ubiquity, destined to be a cult classic to a very large cult. But part of it is also just the built-in elusiveness of the material itself: I know these songs, but when I return to the album it often feels like I’m hearing them for the first time, as if they’ve changed since I last put them aside—mischievous apparitions moving the parts around and adjusting its tones while I’m not listening. It’s like chasing a ghost through a gauntlet of concrete and steel.

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