Underworld - A Collection
Mon 5th Mar, 2012 Music Reviews 920 viewsin
The retrospective collection is frequently a worrying sign of age from artists whose careers are on an inevitable decline. After all, why bother coming up with anything new or original when you can make a shameless grab for cash with tried-and-tested material? It’s a cynical point of view, but one that has unfortunately been proven all too accurate many times before. However, given that 2012 heralds the most ambitious project Underworld have embarked on to late – taking on the role of music directors at the London Olympic games – as well as their twentieth year together, some sort of celebration is called for. The two-disc set spans the most recent output the duo have released of late, alongside the classics that propelled them into the mainstream consciousness of clubbers – but is A Collection a worthwhile addition to the extensive discography that Underworld have already released? It’s a difficult question to answer.
The sad truth is that a significant proportion of Underworld’s more recent material leaves much to be desired. Latest LP Barking was an overwhelmingly glossy but graceless and clumsy listening experience, in spite of (or possibly even because of) the star-studded line-up of collaborators involved in its creation. A Collection’s first track, The First Note is Silent, featuring High Contrast and Tiesto, shows similar flaws – Hyde’s vocals sound as if he’s inhaled a tankful of helium and the resulting brain-cell death has left him only semi-lucid. Scribble, with High Contrast, is a passable drum and bass track successfully aimed straight at heart of the dancefloor (if a disappointment in light of the transcendental sounds of its previous, untouched incarnation You Do Scribble). Downpipe with the likes of Mark Knight and D. Ramirez is spectacularly forgettable, but Beebop Hurry with none other than Brian Eno is so charmingly offbeat and unexpected, given Underworld’s previous track record, that it’s impossible not to like – all Beat poetics and strange instrumentals that is one saving grace in the slew of their more recent material.
It’s in the exploration of Underworld’s older contributions to the dance music canon that A Collection becomes truly worthwhile – after all, there is a reason why Underworld are celebrated as one of dance music’s most important acts of all time. Oblivion with Bells, Crocodile and To Heal are a glimmer in the darkness and a timely reminder of what made the duo such a compelling act to watch, in the first place. Delve back even further to singles from dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest in the Infants, and the legacy that they’ve built for themselves these past two decades becomes undeniably plain. The broken beats of rave fodder Pearl’s Girl sound as heavy-hitting and deep as ever, slicing through a bassline that hums like electrified wire and cemented into place by Hyde’s half-mad intonations, while the windswept and thoroughly urbane Mmm Skyscraper I Love You follows in a similar vein. It’s a beautiful thing, and everybody’s a beautiful thing, Hyde sings – a moving reminder of the intoxicating, euphoric pull of the dancefloor.
Which, arguably, is the kind of territory that they have helped to define. The two tracks from the soundtrack to Danny Boyle’s cult-classic film Trainspotting make their requisite appearances, Born Slippy.NUXX in particular likely to be that one jaw-droppingly powerful reminder of Underworld’s entrance into the canon of dance music. How many people still recall shouting “lager, lager, lager” in time with Hyde on a crowded, sweaty dancefloor? If you were lucky enough to catch Underworld when they headlined Winter Sound System back in 2010 as I did, the sheer scope of _Born Slippy_’s emotional resonance remains as clear as ever. How can you even begin to pull apart and analyse a song as immensely important to the history of dance music as that?
There’s a moment on one of Beaucoup Fish’s singles, Jumbo, that provides an accurate assessment of Underworld’s place in dance music’s history – its bubbly bassline sounding positively effervescent wrapped in layers of lush pads. When Hyde throatily whispers there are no borders between us, you’re inclined to agree with him – there’s no boundaries to the emotional power of Underworld’s previous material, and maybe A Collection is a timely reminder of that.
Underworld: A Collection is out now on Cooking Vinyl.