As naff genre labels go, how does ‘pastoral techno’ sound? At the very least, it’s a vaguely accurate way of describing Underworld’s direction on their ninth album. It is also in keeping with the record’s curious but optimistic title, reportedly one of the last things Rick Smith’s dad uttered before he died.
This music is a long way from the edginess of mid-1990s high points Second Toughest In The Infants or Dubnobasswithmyheadman, even their last album Barking. Since then, Karl Hyde and Smith have scored an Olympic opening ceremony while branching further into the world of cinema. Hyde has worked alone and with Brian Eno, Smith working on more collaborations with Danny Boyle, and their heady explorations, increasingly multicultural, appear to have given them even more self-assurance.
Those experiences rub off most obviously on Santiago Cuatro, the airy fourth track, and I Exhale, the sprawling opener. Both use melodies and loops, seemingly of South American origin, to hypnotic effect. Hyde muses contentedly and almost absent-mindedly over the top, his vocals much less urgent but still recognisably in the Underworld style.
Most of the album’s seven tracks clock in around eight minutes, the ideal structure within which the duo can spin out their expansive ideas. I Exhale sets the mood of the album immediately, though initially it seems not to be doing enough. A basic, slow beat and a bass ‘line’ of only two notes are the building blocks over which Hyde gives repeated but insistent lyrical couplets. They dovetail beautifully, the spoken dialogue ever more like the musing and observations of an inner city street poet with a colourful past. Somehow Hyde keeps the balance between rough and tender, the result a strangely calming and affirmative listen.
Compared to the frantic beat making of Barking the difference is striking, yet there is no loss of energy – more a redirection within. Where Barking was all about the kinetic energy of the feet and arms, Barbara… joins the soul and the head, its rhythms enhancing rather than driving the experience.
Its warm and fuzzy centre is best experienced in the grandeur of Low Burn, impressing with the cinematic horn phrases, a clear beneficiary of the duo’s soundtrack work. Ova Nova, too, is rather wonderful with its basic four to the floor rhythm and sonorous bass line, while Motorhome makes the mood more lyrically explicit, Hyde exhorting “don’t let it drag you down, keep away from the dark side”.
Hyde is a charming presence throughout, and though you may not know what the hell he’s on about sometimes that remains part of his appeal, as he makes a strong emotional connection. It is difficult to pinpoint just how Underworld can touch the heart and soul, but they get on the listener’s level, tugging at the heartstrings with expansive chord progressions, topped off with uncompromising but accessible beats. You can dance to them for sure, and tear the place up with the faster tracks, but you can also kick back with them at 4.00 in the morning.
Unexpectedly, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith have turned out to be an electronic act for all seasons. Despite their success they remained fully attuned to the British mood and way of life, and with unerring accuracy they translate inner city grit and grace into memorable music. They remain one of our lingering national musical treasures.