For a healthy portion of Gen-Y American music fans, the sound of electronic music’s potential for emotionally stirring resonance was heralded by a single track: “Born Slippy (NUXX),” the thunderously anthemic song from the 1996 Trainspotting soundtrack. The ’90s arrival of a new kind of European house music on U.S. shores had many avatars, but Underworld always possessed both brains and heart, going beyond the casual fan’s desire for something to dance to—or headbang (thanks, Prodigy). On the heels of the reissue of its 1997 masterpiece Second Toughest In The Infants comes the first new Underworld album in more than five years. While the group no longer sounds like the future of house music, it does a damn good job sounding like the present.
Barbara, Barbara, We Face A Shining Future is the first proper Underworld record to be released into a post-LCD Soundsystem world, and it sounds like it. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith (who co-produced the album with High Contrast) have clearly been inspired and invigorated by the developments in pulsing, danceable-but-affecting music in recent years, of which James Murphy is only the most recognizable name in a sea of innovative acts. It’s a genre they helped redefine in the ’90s, and now, elder statesmen that they are, manage to maintain the best traditions of their previous work while incorporating the sounds of dance music’s recent past, without it sounding hokey or like bandwagon-hopping. The group delivers art with just a hint of modern flourishes, that nevertheless feels like the classic Underworld of old.
Those longing for more chants of “lager, lager, lager” may be disappointed, but for fans who have always treasured the uplifting and beautiful moments, Barbara is a welcome elevation of the form. Whereas 2010’s Barking felt like it was in search of a purpose, “I Exhale” immediately sets a tone of stream-of-consciousness impressionism that revels in the massive mid-tempo beats that feel downright elegant when compared to, say, Skrillex. “If Rah,” the second track, continues in this vein, a fuzzy synth pulsing on top of a driving, old-school rhythm. “Keep moving,” Hyde admonishes, as the music does just that. A segue into low bass rumbles signals the arrival of the most uptempo rhythm of the record, “Low Burn,” a propulsive house cut that gradually builds to an ambitious wall of sound that stands with some of the band’s best late-’90s anthems. Unfortunately, it’s followed by the flamenco-esque guitar interlude, “Santiago Cuatro,” an out-of-place misstep, even as a palate cleanser.
But the final three tracks, “Motorhome,” “Ova Nova,” and “Nylon Strung,” are a triptych of emotional high points that confirm the album’s value. The first is a quiet, meandering affair, with Hyde singing as earnestly as he ever has, “Keep away from the dark side.” By the time a simple unaffected piano comes in, the song has become an affecting paean to remaining in the light. “Ova Nova” keeps its spare pulsing beat fused to an old-school bass throb, as breathy female backing vocals pair with his distant, quavering flange of a vocal line. But in the final minutes of Barbara, the record discovers its lodestone: “Nylon Strung” provides a catchy and minimalist synth line whose major-key progression lends the track an uplifting air. “Open me up / I want to hold you / Laughing.” It’s not far from something Sia might sing, but harnessed to the repetitive symphonic drone of the song, it takes on both a more elegiac and transcendent feel, even as it feels like a purging of the fragmented, unconnected streams of consciousness that came before. The keyboards burst in and out with cheerful, celebratory phrases of harmony, as ethereal vocals float in and out behind it all. By the time the triumphant final expansive push to the end arrives, it’s become one of Underworld’s most powerful musical statements—and the memorable grace note to a strong return to form.