Revisiting a Classic: Burial's Untrue (2007)
By Jordan Pytosh
In the 1990s, there was a simultaneous burst of creativity in three British electronic music subgenres: drum and bass, trip-hop and house music. Since that moment, various artists have worked to keep the creative spirit of this period alive and have continued its influence throughout the coming decades, especially as hip-hop began to take over the airwaves in the U.S. But one electronic genre from this same time period seems to spoken of less than its counterparts, though it merits just as much appreciation: garage. This style pairs the faster drum patterns of drum and bass with the ambience of trip-hop, while adding healthy doses of lo-fi production and rhythmic melodies into the mix. Yet, even during its time, garage music remained relatively under the radar, both at home in the UK and abroad.
This is where Untrue enters the picture. Slightly before Untrue’s release, Burial’s 2006 debut album had shone an unexpected spotlight on this obscure subgenre. William Emmanuel Bevan, under the moniker “Burial,” had taken up garage’s mantle and joined the famous electronic music label, Hyperdub, placing his imaginative compositions, built on samples and percussion, amidst the copious amounts of dubstep that the label was producing in the early ‘00s. Inspired by drum and bass act Digital’s 1997 track “Special Mission,” a track cited by Bevan as integral to developing his own unique percussion style, Burial’s self-titled debut his sophomore effort, Untrue, were reflections of his growing interest in breakbeat music. Looking at it from today’s perspective, Untrue sounds as classic as it did when it fist dropped. Its aesthetic could not be easily categorized then, and it remains just as elusive today. Yet, even while sounding so unique, the album still fells deeply grounded in its influences.
Let’s further situate the album in its context. In the same year that Untrue dropped, hop-hop fans were watching Soulja Boy’s “Crank Dat” rack up millions of views on an early version of YouTube while Kanye’s Graduation and 50 Cent’s Curtis were battling over album sales. Arcade Fire had just followed Funeral’s earth-shaking debut with Neon Bible, while James Murphy stopped playing Daft Punk and went full-on sublime synth pop on Sound of Silver. Meanwhile, Sri Lankan artist M.I.A. released four unforgettable singles off of Kala, including “Paper Planes,” while everyone from Avril Lavigne to Maroon 5 to Ne-Yo was rattling the pop charts. This harmonious duality of mainstream and alternative music encapsulates the music of 2007, but still seems to alienate Untrue, which remained separate from all these prominent artists and their audiences.
In an era where novelty and idiosyncrasy repeatedly go underappreciated, it is astounding to think of how Burial conjured up a work that sounded, and continues to sound, so singular, with an ethos that was so removed from what popular music was becoming. The album is more than just an homage to British garage; it represents a cohesive vision, a look into the mind and influences of William Bevan and the realms of culture that helped Untrue come to life. Burial intended to create a sonic experience that matched the emotions conjured by the dialogue snippets and vocal clips he sampled, while still fitting into his distinctive drum programming.
Burial primarily utilized modern samples when constructing his sonic collages; video game snippets, movie dialogues, 90s/00s R&B, and unknown YouTube singers are all included throughout the album. The way the Ray J sample on “Archangel” hits the ears makes it sound like the song itself is yearning for something, and the minimal percussion moving underneath it is an exercise in elegant simplicity, never encroaching on the other elements of the track. The complex emotionality of this song is echoed across the rest of the album, with the moody “In McDonalds” and the album’s melancholy title track offering up their own moving moments. The album does also take a step back from its mood-building to give its audience intimate moments of a different nature, like the dialogue sample in “Shell of Light.” Burial’s atmospheric treatment of this snippet of dialogue allows it to cohere with the other vocal samples across the album, and enable it to communicate similarly deep emotions. These tracks, along with the album’s coda, “Raver,” highlight Untrue’s greatest strength: earnest expression. Each song manages to create a distinctly poignant sonic experience through they ways in which they process the emotions latent in the voices they sample.
Untrue’s distinctive percussion and its mesmerizing samples together establish its sonic world, pushing the idea of soundscape beyond its usual limits. And while this album earned its status as a reaffirmation of an underappreciated UK subgenre, it has solidified its place in music history because of its ability to preserve the past while standing as a timeless work of art on its own.