Album of the Month: Underworld - Barbara, Barbara, We Face a Shining Future

Let me take you back to 1994 when I spent a year in Tokyo. I was 23-years old and the world lay before me in all its unwritten glory. Every day, I would traverse the mesmerizing metropolis on the Yamanote line, breathing in this strange and intoxicating culture. Tokyo was an unrelenting adrenalin rush, (interrupted by the odd earthquake and deadly Sarin gas attack). My time in Japan was one of those pivotal episodes that tilts life away from scripted destiny, jumbles up the future and leaves plans up in the air.

I love electronic music. Always have. You have probably guessed that already if you have followed my monthly album recommendations. Plug in your Stratocaster. Be my guest. Rock n' roll? That's cool with me. Just as long as you know that I am just as content wrapping my ears around a bleeping Moog or a pulsing electro beat or a bank of synthesizers: from Kraftwerk to Depeche Mode to Juan Atkins to Orbital to The Knife to M83 and beyond. Both genres provoke the same degree of emotion.

On my way to the English school, where I corrupted innocent students with my unique bastardized version of my mother tongue, I would don my headphones and listen to music. It would soundtrack the passing skyscrapers that dwarfed over rickety wooden temples, streets splattered with neon advertisements in indecipherable kanji, migraine inducing pachinko parlors, karaoke bars, yakitori stands and ramen shops. Schoolgirls dressed as sailors and identikit salary workers, Edo period grandmas and nattering housewives would all join me on the train that would arrive in Kamata not a second late.

There is one album that I associate with my time in Tokyo more than any other: Underworld's epochal "Dubnobasswithmyheadman". It just kind of sutured into the fabric of Tokyo: the cinematic opening of "Mmm... Skyscraper I Love You", the dull but insistent throb of "Dark & Long", the ebb and flow of their 9-minute opus "Dirty Epic" and obviously the Japanese lyrics in their closing "M.E." When you are deeply in love with music, it is inextricable with life and a single note of that album makes the entire city of Tokyo appear in front of me.

Underworld, namely Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, have released several albums since that time. Their commercial peak was the ubiquitous anthem "Born Slippy", in fact a flop until used for Danny Boyle's era defining "Trainspotting". Within days boozed-up ravers having it large on some Ibiza beach chanted their hedonistic refrain of "Lager, lager, lager". (Strangely, apart from the opening, it is one of my least favorite Underworld songs and impossible to dance to unless fuelled by something your parents would not approve of).

"Barbara, Barbara, we face a shining future" is the work of a band that has been together for over 30 years, yet Underworld always makes music that sounds like one step in the future. It marks a serious return to form...

Let me start with the final track "Nylon Strung" because it is simply one of the most beautiful songs that I have heard in a long time and unequivocally one of the greatest songs that Underworld have created. Built around a drop dead gorgeous and perfectly sung refrain "Open me up, I want to hold you, laughing", it is in itself, a phrase that provokes a spectrum of emotions depending on who its referring to. Karl Hyde's voice mirrored by Rick Smith's daughter Esme, whose soulful soprano is succinctly interwoven into the background. Their notes seem to be held for as long as possible, holding you in suspense, maybe subtly elongating the words each time. Underworld's songs are often built on repetition and here, the track gains momentum over a Chicago House drumbeat and layers of sound. It could have finished after four minutes, but then there is a change in key and it morphs into an uplifting, hands in the air dance with multi-tracked chants of "Love, Love, Love". Finally, the two strands of the song combine before exhausting itself at the finish.
"Nylon Strung" is pure genius.
I have listened to it dozens of times in a row and each time it takes me away somewhere, leaves me feeling both sad and elated, like the greatest songs effortlessly do.

Nothing quite achieves the magnificence of this track, but the quality here is higher than any of Underworld's albums since the gloriously titled "Second Toughest In the Infants". From the glam stomp opening of "I Exhale" to the pulsing "Ova Nova" to the blissed out, meditative "Santiago Cuatro", this is Karl Hyde and Rick Smith demonstrating that in their 50s they are as relevant and affecting now as they were back when I was wondering what the hell I should do with my life on the commuter train from Tamachi to Kamata.

Wine Recommendation...

Mmm... Tondonia, I Love You.

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