Burial's 'Untrue' Is a Mystery That Was Never Meant to Be Solved
10 years after its release, many have attempted to bottle the nocturnal magic of the enigmatic producer's second album. So far, nobody has.
There's nothing like Untrue. That's a statement (cliché, even) that often rears its head when further canonizing classic works such as Burial's still-peerless, still-not-properly-followed-up second album. But in the ten years since Untrue's release, it's a statement that's taken on the weight of literalism. Just as Burial's musical admirers and imitators often isolate a single element that signifies Untrue's nocturnal beauty—blocky 2-step rhythms, mutated R&B samples that come and go like passing headlights—Burial himself has resisted easy categorization since. We'll likely never get something like Untrue again, from Burial or anyone else—and that's not a good or a bad thing, it just is.
It's fair to say that the record buying public was largely unprepared for Untrue, but its signature sound had been in gestation a few years before its release in November of 2007. Just a year previous, Hyperdub—the UK label founded by shape-shifting bass artist Kode9, of which Burial was the first signee—released his self-titled debut LP, an intriguing and, in retrospect, charmingly varied introduction to his rave-reminiscing sound previously hinted at through a few early singles and EPs.
While Burial lacked Untrue's cohesion and clarity of vision, its highlights—the shuddering "Gutted," the piping synth decay of "Distant Lights" and "U Hurt Me," a few pleasing ambient workouts scattered throughout—were the signal of a new talent in dubstep, a subgenre of dance music that was at that point largely a UK concern. (It was largely British publications that championed Burial; The Wire would eventually go on to name it the best album of that year.)
It feels nearly impossible to overstate the impact that Untrue had by comparison. Released with only a month's worth of anticipation surrounding it, the album was immediately and rapturously fêted by critics of all stripes, garnering comparisons to other landmark crossover electronic albums before it, including DJ Shadow's 1996 trip-hop classic Entroducing… For American audiences, Untrue arrived near the tail end of a year in which dance and electronic music were growing in popularity beyond the genre purists and club-scene regulars.
Bloghouse—the unfortunately-named and largely social subgenre defined by a streamlined sense of melody and primarily existing in the form of debauched snaps of the parties that played its music—was experiencing something of an aesthetic peak. Just that year alone saw releases from Klaxons, Chromeo, Justice, and Kanye West, who blew up bloghouse's obsession with all things French to global scale on the strident and moneyed-sounding Graduation.
The waning subgenre of minimal techno received a much-needed (and, arguably, final) infusion of oxygen from Swedish producer Axel Willner's stunning and emotive debut as the Field, From Here We Go Sublime; M.I.A.'s landmark sophomore effort Kala anticipated the sounds of the future by effectively approaching genre with the type of all-at-once attitude you typically encounter at the toppings station of a 16 Handles, while of Montreal's Kevin Barnes similarly anticipated the emotive and highly rhythmic synth-pop sounds that later took hold in overground alternative pop with his indie-disco-as-therapy-session masterwork Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? And memories of the past were as prevalent as visions of the future: LCD Soundsystem's career-peak Sound of Silver traded in wistfulness and regret over a mélange of early-electronic record-nerd influences, while Animal Collective member Panda Bear fused his love for minimal techno á la Richard Villalobos with bright nostalgia on the massively influential Person Pitch. But even during a landmark year such as this for aisle-crossing electronic music, Untrue loomed large in terms of its blunt force impact.
And as much as Untrue would come to dictate future trends, its soul is firmly rooted in the sounds of the past. Similar to Boards of Canada's analog-based nostalgia for psychedelia and the flickering glow of TV sets circa the 70s, Untrue—and, in the one characteristic that defines it as a whole, Burial's entire catalog—draws from his own unremembered memories of the 90s UK rave scene, crafting a singular sound from the euphoric rush of jungle and the crisp gait of 2-step and UK Garage.
Plenty of ink's been spilled over the years on Untrue's shadowy, melancholic atmosphere, but it's important to note how the album captures the ecstatic sensory overload of revisiting rave's glory days. Under that light, the bleating vocal samples on "Etched Headplate" radiate over lurching low end and a snappy rhythmic gait, and the abrupt rug-pulling of the title track's weightless synths capture the unmistakable feeling of being saucer-eyed on the dance floor, stunned by whatever tune's pumping out of the speakers. Even Untrue's ambient passages—the magic-hour glint of "Endorphin," "UK"'s slowed-down chord break ripped from a dusty DJ bag—possess pure positivity, a warmth that belies the record's chilly reputation.
Mining sounds of the past to craft a sonic identity is, ten years on, a well that musicians dance-oriented and otherwise visit frequently (often, to their detriment). But it's a charge that, when faced with it, said musicians tend to push away from upon contact, fearing the risk of cliché. Burial faced no such internal struggle.
"I've never been to a festival," he told The Wire's Mark Fisher in an extensive interview published shortly after Untrue's release. "Never been to a rave in a field. Never been to a big warehouse, never been to an illegal party, just clubs and playing tunes indoors or whatever. I heard about it, dreamed about it. My brother might bring back these records that seemed really adult to me and I couldn't believe I had 'em. It was like when you first saw Terminator or Alien when you're only little. I'd get a rush from it, I was hearing this other world, and my brother would drop by late and I'd fall asleep listening to tunes he put on."
For those taken enough with Burial's work to obsessively follow his career in the years since, Fisher's interview has since taken on the form of a sacred text—and not only because it provides a road map that's essential to understanding the layers of intent and influence that comprise his catalog. Along with one or two others, the interview marks the last period of time in which Burial engaged with the press on any involved level; for a time, he enjoyed what was more or less total anonymity.
Notions of identity and persona have proved a playground of sorts for artists working in the dance and electronic sphere, from the numerous aliases adopted by producers to the press-shy attitudes adopted by vanguards such as Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Drexciya. For Burial, the cloak of anonymity was as much another love letter to rave's golden days as it was a natural extension of his personality.
"It's like the lost art of keeping a secret, but it keeps my tunes closer to me and other people," he told The Guardian in 2007. "I love that with old jungle and garage tunes, when you didn't know anything about them, and nothing was between you and the tunes. I liked the mystery; it was more scary and sexy." And Untrue's twice-refracted take on the past fits that approach like a pressed suit—especially in how it further submerges rave's sample-happy history in layers of moonlit steam. Track-ID'ing in internet-native dance culture was still something relegated to the nerdier corners of newsgroups and message boards—there were no Soundcloud comments, or Soundcloud for that matter—and Burial's cultivation of mystery in both his music and persona was best executed in the waning days of 2000s-era online culture.
In the years that followed, though, the mystery ceased to exist. After Untrue was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize, a journalist from UK tabloid The Sun attempted to "unmask" Burial, essentially forcing his hand to reveal his real name—William Bevan—along with a proto-selfie on his MySpace page and a note to listeners: "I wanted to be unknown because I just want it to be all about the tunes. Over the last year the unknown thing became an issue so I'm not into it any more...I'm a low-key person and I just want to make some tunes, nothing else."
This should've sated even the most suspicious Burial truther, and yet: in the summer of 2013, a half-humorous, half-gonzo, and 100% ludicrous theory that Burial's true identity was actually Four Tet's Kieran Hebden made the rounds. The connecting threads that tied the theory together had to do with Hebden's previous collaborations with Burial, as well as the fact that the two both attended South London's prestigious Elliott School in their youth—on a whole, reminiscent of stray rumors throughout the 90s that lo-fi once-recluse Jandek was actually an alias for Thurston Moore. (The pair have played together since, so there's that.)
Near the end of that year, Burial released the Rival Dealer EP. Besides being arguably his strongest release to date since Untrue, it fueled further speculation beyond Burial's mere name, as FACT's Tom Lea interpreted the release's themes of self-acceptance and sexual identity to possibly represent a personal statement coming from the man himself.
"There's nothing explicit enough to suggest that Rival Dealer is Burial's own Frank Ocean letter," Lea stated. "But the EP's final sample—a speech by transgender filmmaker Lana Wachowski at last year's Human Rights Campaign gala—combined with sentences such as 'sometimes you're trying to find yourself,' 'step into the unknown,' 'it's about sexuality, about showing someone who you really are,' and 'you're not alone' really makes you think...If it also represents a 'coming out' of sorts for him—whether that's sexually, or simply by ushering in a new stage of his music—then all the better." The flurry of new speculation prompted not one, but two statements from Burial in line with his 2008 MySpace post: first, an air-clearing message in December 2013 read by radio personality Mary Anne Hobbs about the "anti-bullying" themes of Rival Dealer, and then a longer message—accompanied by another, more iconic selfie—that followed at the top of 2014.
This recent history may seem like it has nothing to do with Untrue, but very little of it would have taken place without it. The evocative images—city streets, cloudy skies, and, yes, rides on the night bus—conjured by Untrue's music inspired artists big and small in the decade that followed; in particular, a variety of producers ranging from UK beatmaker Pariah to NYC duo Sepalcure and indie kid Mister Lies have used notes of Untrue's aromatic scent with varying degrees of success and effectiveness.
But more than any sonic footprint left to follow, perhaps Untrue's most curious and lasting legacy is the gambit of anonymity wielded by myriad of artists since. I'd never dare call Burial "chillwave," and I don't think any chillwave artists have ever explicitly tried to sound like him. But given Untrue's status as a millennial touchstone for introducing the uninitiated to dance music, it's reasonable to conclude that his unassuming approach to presenting his music inspired many of the intentionally publicity-shy artists that cluttered chillwave's hazy confines to adopt a lack of persona as a means of cultivating attention. (Plenty of electronic artists—both over and underground—have done similarly and more crassly, but it's not worth naming names.)
And the glut of anonymous-ish artists that clogged the blogs from 2010 until, well, this very day have largely failed to capture a musical moment that justifies letting the mystery be quite like Untrue did. In that sense and others, it's unreplicatable—a basic fact all but acknowledged by Burial himself, who's spent the last decade following his muse down unpredictable corners from creeping tone poetry and noisy chaos to house-ish beats and explicit applications of rave's hyperspeed rush. It's still unclear whether we'll ever receive a proper album-length follow-up to Untrue, and given how strongly it still stands and the thrillingly unpredictable trajectory Burial's career has taken since, maybe it's better that way.
Larry Fitzmaurice is on Twitter.