Burial’s Search for Fleeting Moments
Written by Admin on December 8, 2019
You go out to dance—or to nod your head—with the promise of mystery. You might hear the most enchanting tune ever, and never discover what it was. A band at least tells you its name. D.j.s keep secrets; their selections are often hidden from view, and return to you in fragments—a hellish bass line, a sped-up vocal, drums that reprogram your bodily rhythms. So much of the ritual of dance music involves trying to recover a moment that just whizzed past you, a couple of fleeting minutes that were part of a d.j.’s hours-long mix, a few steps along a continuous journey. Your only clues are how it felt.
The London producer Burial makes music about dance music—about that search for something life-changing. He began releasing singles in the early two-thousands, on Hyperdub, a label run by the musician, d.j., and theorist Steve Goodman. Goodman, who records as Kode9, and Burial met online; they shared an interest in the emotional spectrum encompassed by dance music. The history of pop includes odes to love and longing, happiness and sadness. But dance subgenres, such as jungle or garage, seek to express something different: the thrill of tearing through the space-time continuum, a fascination with tomorrow, a desire to accelerate toward new horizons faster than seems possible.
What made Burial’s initial releases unusual were the drums, which sounded purposefully muddled. His attempt at reproducing garage’s gleeful, striding rhythms ended up feeling desolate and dark, like someone skipping through the mud. At first, he enjoyed a kind of anonymity, which lent his misty, spooky music a bit of mystery. Only a handful of people knew who he was, and his tracks refused moments of collective catharsis. Instead of dubstep’s famed “drop,” the frenzied breakdown that functions like a twenty-first-century guitar solo, there were tiny pockets of sublimity, akin to the majestic digital fanfare that awaits you after hours spent battling the final boss in a video game. His first albums—“Burial,” from 2006, and “Untrue,” from the following year, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize—didn’t feel like efforts at building community, the way that dance music often feels. They sounded like a solitary wanderer’s midnight explorations, chasing snippets of R. & B. rattling from cars, bass zaps bleeding from someone else’s headphones.
In the years since “Untrue,” Burial has released a series of singles and EPs, all of which seem to toggle between shapeless, ambient excursions and sample-driven homages to beloved niche dance music of the past. “Tunes 2011 to 2019,” his new album, consists of previously released music, though Hyperdub notes that much of it is not widely available on CD. The tracks are sequenced in a somewhat counterintuitive way, and it’s a sign of Burial’s mystique that his editorial choices feel freighted with meaning. For example, nothing resembling a drum is heard until about twenty-six minutes in. Instead, the album opens with “State Forest,” “Beachfires,” and “Subtemple,” aggressively quiet tracks that sound more like a thief cracking a safe than like music. By leading with these tracks, which even some hard-core fans find dull, Burial almost seems to be conducting an exercise in listening; you start to notice the rumbling ambience of night. Once the song “Young Death” enters this void, its wobbly synth and barely audible kick drum feel almost overwhelming.
When Burial was nominated for the Mercury Prize, a British tabloid writer tried to figure out his true identity, but was thwarted in part by Burial’s fans, who wanted him to live according to his own choices. As the curiosity about his identity started to overshadow his work, though, Burial revealed his name: William Emmanuel Bevan. Still, he refused to do interviews or to perform live shows, and he claimed to have little interest in the Internet. If he really did stay logged off, then he was perhaps unaware that he was at the vanguard of a movement—in dance music, as well as in hip-hop and R. & B.—to make tunes that were essentially studies in mood or vibe, sonic sketches of twenty-first-century life’s eerie uncertainty. His devotees heard his influence in acts ranging from James Blake and Drake to Skrillex and the rock band the 1975.
Bevan is probably about forty years old, and he inherited his love of dance music from his older brother, who, when Bevan was a child, would go out at night and report back about what he heard. The brothers would listen to new twelve-inch jungle records together, and Bevan would imagine what it was like to experience these sounds in their native environment. This helps explain the somewhat voyeuristic aspect of his music, the way that it always feels as if you’re lurking, or just drifting through a scene. Nevertheless, he managed to capture something essential about the draw of night life, particularly for lonely and despairing oddballs. In the late eighties and early nineties of Bevan’s imagination, you didn’t necessarily go to a rave to watch someone d.j. There was no hierarchy and no center; it was all edges, all margins, transient moments of communion.
Burial’s greatest talent is for listening, and for noticing what most of us take for granted. On “Untrue,” he built his tracks around vocal samples, most of which became utterly unrecognizable in his hands. He took passages by Beyoncé or Sarah McLachlan and stretched them until they were stripped of anything that would identify them as male or female, black or white, human or not. At other times, he rearranged the lyrics until the expressions of pop yearning began to sound forlorn and alien. He made his first album using outdated software, and has attributed most of what people found innovative to his own amateur resourcefulness. He sampled sound effects from video games, like Metal Gear Solid: the clink of a shell casing hitting the ground was redeployed as rhythm. He applied crackle and hiss to his songs in order to distract from parts he found rough and lame.
One of the only interviews he’s ever granted was to the late critic Mark Fisher, who, in 2007, profiled him for The Wire. They were kindred spirits, deep listeners obsessed with visions of a future that never arrived. While Fisher lamented the politics of the present, Bevan felt a kind of secondhand nostalgia. The provisional utopias of illegal dance parties in the eighties and nineties hadn’t succeeded in uniting the masses. Back then, he told Fisher, the ravers “weren’t running ahead or falling behind, they were just right there and the tunes meant everything.” That spirit of wanderlust was now gone.
“Tunes 2011 to 2019” tracks a period when Burial’s fans started combing his songs for clues about his state of being. His music began to feel increasingly self-referential, possibly confessional. Hidden under the squall of “Rival Dealer” is a clip of a British man talking plainly about his bisexuality. “Come Down to Us,” a slow-motion traipse through an enchanted forest, ends with a sample of the director Lana Wachowski talking about having felt “broken” and like “a freak,” until she declared that she was transgender.
Wachowski goes on to discuss the concept of a room beyond the room we find ourselves in—a thumbnail gloss of her most famous work, “The Matrix” (co-directed with her sister Lilly Wachowski). What makes Burial’s music so captivating is that you can go wherever you want inside it. The songs offer shelter. And, rather than describing a place you wish to go, they seem to depict places you have already been. There are distant echoes to be followed. It’s about coming down on the way home, the invincibility you felt an hour ago ebbing as you ride the bus. His music chases the thrill of music itself, the feeling of a new sound passing through your body. And you remember what you thought the future would sound like, how it would feel, and you try to go there, still. ♦