Delicate and damaged; broken and beautiful: Burial

by 5:4

Listening to as much music as i do, it’s quite rare to come across something that’s truly surprising. While surprises aren’t as rare as shocks (which are becoming extinct, it seems), they’re elusive nonetheless, and when they do happen it’s exciting and compelling. Those two words apply well to the music of Burial, who emerged seemingly from nowhere in late 2005. Things haven’t changed much since then; somehow, he’s managed to remain anonymous – a handful of people, apparently, know who he is – which is a remarkable achievement. Not as remarkable an achievement as his music, however, which breaks apart the relatively flimsy ideas of dubstep and garage, and creates delicate, damaged objects from the pieces. In fact, brokenness is a quality that pervades all his work, an innate sense of the tragic; Burial is casting his eyes over the world around him and clearly finds the spectacle saddening.

It takes someone with acute sensibilites to say something so stark and emotive through a music of this kind; all the more reason, i suppose, why such a critical source as The Wire named Burial’s eponymous first album as its 2006 Album of the Year. From the opening, untitled, track onwards, there’s an air of mystery cloaking his music, and yet simultaneously it sounds very familiar, very British (a title like “Gutted” affirms its Englishness). Listening to Burial is to be transported to the streets of a city suburb, beneath nocturnal rain; the most telling tracks bespeak devastation in very different ways.

His second album, Untrue, released late last year, pushes credulity – like the emotions it conveys – to breaking point. No less incensed, the music now begins to sing, but androgynous melodies sung by animatronic voices. and yet, the effect is excruciatingly moving, a reaction, perhaps, against something false (the album is titled Untrue, after all), and a lament to that which has been lost, or forgotten, or maybe was never known. The maturity of expression here is – literally – incredible; delicacy has given way to transparency, and an infinitely wider depth and breadth of vision. But more: if Burial is an anguished critique, Untrue begins to show something truly visionary, shedding a new kind of light on the things it sees.

Urban music has been needing a voice like this – a prophetic voice, objective, symbolic and radical – for a long time. Like all prophets, he has garnered a lot of attention, and has a wide and vociferous (not to say eclectic) range of supporters. But most prophets, ultimately, are rejected, when their novelty fades and all that remains is the heart of their message, which is quickly deemed to be, at best, unpalatable, at worst, downright unthinkable. The prophet critiques the world around him, exposes its faults, and suggests – no, more than that, embodies – what is necessary to begin to move beyond it into something better. Unavoidably, for this to happen, something has to be done away with; i don’t think it’s any accident this artist has taken anonymity for his image, and Burial for his name.

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