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Thursday, January 15, 2009 

Looking back 2008: Burial

(In which Ian mostly avoids writing about any sort of 2008 best-of list in favour of writing up, in no particular order, ten (or so) albums from past years he spent time listening to, thinking about or discovering during 2008. An occasional series, but one which will hopefully be finished over the next few weeks rather than abandoned.)

Burial - Untrue (2007)

Burial makes devotional music. But what he's devoted to is, as one his tracks puts it, "Ghost Hardware." If his 2006 debut was the subterranean clank and throb of a dead city, voices tentative and long since vanished (excepting a relatively ill-judged track with vocalist Spaceape), last year's Untrue introduces people back into the mix, albeit in the most spectral of ways. Those haunted/ing empty voices mesh with the post-rave ghosthall ambience extraordinarily well, but the main pleasure in Burial's music is still his beats, which continue to rattle and clash more than they actually keep a beat or make you want to move. Burial beats sound like fists knocking on tin walls, knives being pulled from sheathes, discarded shell casings bouncing on pavement (the latter literally, thanks to samples from Metal Gear Solid). While he's still willing to give his beats and sound environments five minutes to just unfurl and repeat, something you can only get away with when you're this distinctive and viscerally pleasurable, this time Burial's work never succumbs to eye-glazing hypnosis the way the debut occasionally did (a neat and perhaps valuable trick, but not one you want to repeat).

In that environment, these echoing proclamations of love and loss attain a churchly grandeur, but Burial isn't just mourning, he's recreating, maybe even in a grim and limited way improving on the life that's gone by. The sample list for Untrue is impressive and surprising (Christina Aguilera! Silent Hill! India.Arie!) but the way Burial uses those voices is such that none of the reviews I read assumed they were anything more than obscure old rave divas or maybe just friends of the artist. More importantly, there are no real 'voices' in the sense of humanity or agency in Burial's songs - there's never any dialogue, or any sense that the words are directed at anyone who's still there. Aesthetically Burial's made it work for him, but it also means that even his saddest songs sound a bit like the kind of wish fulfillment we engage in when we imagine what the Other might say or feel. It's an interesting question to consider whether these voices are supposed to represent Burial himself or the Other, but in either case the result is the same: the emotional side of Burial's music is concerned almost wholly with projection and while his subject matter is often heartbreak and rejection, a projection of rejection is still less damning, less painful, less risky, than actual rejection.

I'm not accusing Burial of being immature or pathological, mind you - anyone who claims they've never done this is either lying or terminally unreflective. And I'm sure Burial himself is a normal guy with a typical range of interests and pursuits, although his music betrays an almost monastic focus and asceticism. But in addition to the very cogent things written about Burial's music and the life and death of UK dance music genres, there's a personally mournful (or at least backwards-looking) element to his music as well, one that fetishizes the kind of barren landscapes that make this sort of projection possible. You could go very dark with this angle - that Burial's music is cold and solipsistic, that it fantasizes about dead cities and empty streets as places where we can replay in our heads our interpersonal relationships as one-sided conversations where we're the ones who are missed and valued and others can't answer back. But I don't take that tack, and I tend to experience the emotional aspect of Burial's music and use of voices in an oddly doubled way. On the one hand, his 'ghost hardware' is a venue where we can work through our troubles for catharsis and as preparation (not as substitute) for, well, talking to the other person again; simultaneously, it's an admission and celebration of how much we all do tend to live in our own heads. It might not be the most flattering thing to admit, but the entropic, possibly self-serving whispers and echoes of Burial aren't necessarily radically different from the way the passing of time and the subjectivity of memory shapes our experience of emotional moments in our lives.

And so Burial is, as I said, creating hymnals not just to the idea of an Other or to her* remembered/imagined words and actions and feelings, but to the 'ghost hardware' we use as a framework for remembering and for framing those events and interior states in our memory. For a variety of reasons, he's hit upon an atmosphere that suggests nothing less dramatic than a post-cataclysm London as his vehicle for this feeling, but it works (I imagine it helps that both Burial and most of his fans are urban, and lonely). And Burial's music isn't concerned with nostalgia so much as with keeping the flame alive, musically and emotionally, which is one of the reasons why I reject the contention that his music is hermetically sealed and inhuman (although I understand where that argument is coming from). It's key to Burial's emotional power that the devotion and ache in his music is relatively inchoate and more about the process of longing and remembrance than about any given instance of it. That's something we all do, and it's around that complicated issue that Burial's music revolves; Untrue is devotional music for our doubts, our subjectivity, our memories, and the cities and machines and music we use to feel and express these things. It makes perfect sense that the musical golden age Burial has expressed reverence for in interviews was/is precisely a venue in which people gather and move together without much talking - everything else is much more complicated.

*I'm a heterosexual male; replace pronouns as appropriate for yourself, but the point and the emotional gist is the same.

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Nicely done, Ian.

I like this album, too, though I've never thought about it very hard or tried to articulate why.

Thanks! I'm glad you commented, because it made me realize that "next few weeks" in the little preamble up there had somehow been spelled "new feeks weeks."

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Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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