While the wait between records for Underworld has been a lengthy one, the music community could hardly accuse the duo that is Rick Smith and Karl Hyde of slacking off since their last album. Consider all that has happened since its release back in 2010 – the last two years have seen celebratory reissues of game-changing records dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants, and the artistic endeavours that Hyde and Smith have earnestly devoted the intervening years to have spoken to a more expansive, adventurous sonic palette for both – together the duo managed to compose well-received soundtracks for Danny Boyle-directed stage production Frankenstein and, just casually, the London Olympics (!?!?), as well as further work by Smith on the soundtrack for Boyle’s Trance. Hyde, too, has migrated from the confines of the dancefloor and the rhythm of urban living, with two successful collaborations with the revered Brian Eno and a solo album titled Edgeland under his belt.
This expanding of horizons is likely what makes Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future such a welcome release. Barbara Barbara represents a definitive departure from the main-room club sounds that was the hallmark of their last full-length effort, Barking – which, in retrospect, felt almost too glossy and polished. With the slew of collaborators and the very dancefloor-oriented aesthetic to the record, it felt a confused and haphazard listen that hasn’t aged particularly well. Whereas Barbara Barbara, with its much stronger sense of identity and direction and a far more intriguing sonic palette, feels like a much more adult and polished listen. The approach focuses far more on songwriting and tracks that get in and out and keep listeners’ attention throughout, and mostly succeeds on this front. The production is fresh and represents a significant milestone in their ever-changing sound whilst Hyde’s essential poetics remain as strange, cryptic, and vibrant as ever.
The moments where Smith and Hyde successfully take some of these cross-disciplinary approaches back to their partnership are what make for the album’s highlights. Album opener “I Exhale” (also the first single to emerge prior to the album’s release) is delightfully unexpected – pared-back to a rumbling two-note bassline and a simple beat as Hyde declares that “life / it’s a touch / everything is golden”, setting the scene for the record ahead – a quirky, celebratory set of weird and life-affirming proper tracks intended more for walking through the city on a sunny afternoon than a sweaty basement early Sunday morning. Make no mistake, the boys are back to writing proper songs, much like their work prior to dubnobasswithmyheadman, rather than tunes to fill out DJ’s record bags. When this background makes itself known, it’s within this structure – “If Rah”, for example, vaguely recalls acid techno but repurposes the sounds of the club for Hyde’s verse-chorus-verse glimpses into everyday life – a simple sawtooth synth melody as Hyde skips effortlessly through images and snippets of conversation from text, before the chorus’ wry sense of humour and a increasingly soaring, dramatic melody lifts things into hands-in-the-air
With this said, there are nods to their previous home on the dancefloor that are perfectly executed within the context of this album. Techno cut “Low Burn” could easily slot into some of Underworld’s older records, for example – airy and melodic yet unrelentingly driving and padded out perfectly with Hyde’s filtered vocals, elegant and danceable as anything from older records such as Oblivion with Bells or Second Toughest in the Infants.
There are tracks that fall flat, too – “Santiago Cuatro” is a pleasant little interlude of finger-plucked, complex guitar work, but feels unadventurous slotted in amongst most of the other tracks, and the turgid pace of “Motorhome” which follows makes for a brief sag in the album’s pace. Final tracks “Ova Nova” and “Nylon Strung” recover this pace with great success, however, leaving the album to close on the same joyous note it began.
This is a promising return to form for Underworld – one that certainly speaks to a shining future in 2016 for touring and production efforts.
Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is available on CD, Vinyl, and Digital on March 18, 2016.
(Editor’s note: You can find more reviews of the album by born.dirty members in the dirty forums.)