When Burial’s second LP, 'Untrue', first hit shelves there’s a fairly high chance you didn’t own a smartphone. The game-changing first iPhone had only debuted earlier in the year, and up until that point the idea of a handheld computer that can make phone calls was still something of a gimmick-driven curiosity.
That fact alone, if you can stretch your mind to such a time, should give a bit of context to the world into which this record dropped.
This is not to say that that world was a disconnected fete of villages and towns, but rather that it was on the cusp of a new age of hyper-connected, communication saturation. An age in which people’s personal information has become a commodity, and something that many give away both freely and unknowingly. In which people are talking to each other more than ever, but without actually talking to each other.
Facebook only became available to people outside of US universities in 2006, the year before 'Untrue' was released. Twitter too was then just a little over a year old. Tinder was still something you used to light fires (and not in Jim Morrison’s sense of the phrase). Snapchat was but a twinkle in a teenage Evan Spiegel’s eye.
Of course, MySpace was very much a thing at the time – it hit its peak valuation of $12bn in 2007 – and was a particularly important platform for musicians looking to break into the industry, or break its mould entirely. Burial had a profile himself.
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It wasn’t until 2008, however – once 'Untrue' had been nominated for the prestigious Mercury Prize and The Sun had decided to try and unmask the man behind the moniker – that Burial’s profile had a self-portrait profile photo added, along with an explanatory blog post revealing his name to be Will Bevan, that he lived in South London, and that he wanted to remain (relatively) anonymous so that his music would be able to speak for itself.
Up until that point, the only widely-known image of the man was the pencil-sketched portrait on the front of his second LP – a notion largely presumed, and still unconfirmed.
Burial’s anonymity created outsize intrigue, especially following that Mercury nomination, and, though not original to Bevan, is a move that’s been attempted by plenty of others in his wake – often with limited success or appeal (here’s looking at you, Zomby).
Rather than being a cheap, unoriginal marketing gimmick from someone who clearly quite liked the added attention and interest it would inevitably generate (here’s looking at you, Zomby), Burial’s desire to remain away from the spotlight and let his music take centre stage felt genuine.
Even after announcing his name, people still wanted to believe that his identity remained secret. Instead of trying to prove the legitimacy of the Burial/Will Bevan name reveal, some fans claimed that the reveal itself was a hoax after discovering that williambevan.co.uk was registered to a funeral directors.
This is perhaps because, with Burial, the sense of anonymity had seeped into and become a recognisable part of the music he made.
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This floating, identity-less existence passed into his music through ethereal synths, disconnected crackles, and scattered, syncopated drum loops. Through the way his tracks fused elements from hardcore, garage, jungle, R&B, proto-dubstep, and 2-step into something boldly new – and largely indefinable.
But mostly this anonymity could be felt in the way vocal samples would at turns bed in, drift over or cut straight through a tune.
In Burial’s hands, otherwise recognisable samples take on a whole new guise and feeling.
Lifting from some of the biggest, most commercially-successful artists of recent times – Usher on ‘Near Dark’, Christina Aguilera on ‘Ghost Hardware’, Beyoncé on ‘Untrue’, Aaliyah on ‘In McDonalds’, D’Angelo and Ciara on ‘Shell of Light’, (and Ray J on ‘Archangel’) – as well as a host of cult classic movies and video games, the record should feel like pastiche. Though of course, it doesn’t.
It’d be easy to fall into a trap of describing the result of all of this as a record that’s ironically become iconic, when in fact it’s surely a case of Bevan’s point being proven: the music has been allowed to speak for itself, with the help of little more than track titles and the internet forum rumour mill to nudge at what it might all mean.
In doing so, it’s taken on an identity entirely of its own – not attached to or conflated with a single person’s image or other worldly output. Untrue remains the model for this vision. It’s at once timeless and emphatically of its time – despite, rather than because of, the endless reams of hapless imitators it spawned.
Listeners will root it in south London, thanks to early tracks with names like ‘South London Boroughs’ and tales of road testing tunes with late night drives in the area, but ultimately the album and the sonic identity it wrought could represent pretty much any 21st century urban environment in the UK. It captures the humanity that remains at the heart of our sprawling urban landscapes: intimacy overheard in fast food joints, people watched and backstories imagined half cut on a night bus home from the club.
Having arrived at the crest of a new technological revolution brought via the mobile internet and online social networks, Untrue has come to reflect a world in which technology is making us more connected but can leave us feeling lonelier than ever too. It plays off an oppressive sense of metropolitan isolation with its warm, dreamlike swathes and pinprick cries of human emotion.
There’s simultaneously a cold industrial edge to the sound and a deeply human comfort. And if that isn’t something that you could say describes the world we live in now – in which, for instance, webcams and online networks are both connecting loved ones all over the globe, and providing a means for hackers to steal identities or hold people to ransom – then perhaps you should step outside, headphones on, and smell the covfefe.
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Words: Will Pritchard (@Hedmuk)
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