Between 1994 and 1996 Underworld created something extremely hard to do once, never mind twice – they recorded two albums of electronic brilliance that have aged so, so well they may just be timeless. Dubnobasswithmyheadman and Second Toughest… brought a real warmth and intelligence to what was essentially techno, while still able to produce dance epics such as ‘Cowgirl’. The following two albums meandered between signs of this early talent, and almost self-parodies of the fridge-magnet lyrics of Karl Hyde (2007’s ‘Boy, Boy, Boy’) but never soared like they did in the previous century.
Barking’s opener, ‘Bird 1’ immediately casts off those days and brings us back to the sounds of ‘Pearl’s Girl’ or ‘Air Towel’ with somewhat more clear and present lyrics, though still somewhat oblique. Descriptions of “a chainsaw of firecrackers”, for example, really conjure up a surreal mood while the ever-building electronic sounds gather layers of bass as they progress. It’s a seven minute intro and while it pulls what the band used to do back in a somewhat more accessible direction, it’s still a return to form.
The second track it a relentlessly positive tune whose “Heaven, Heaven” refrain is a far cry from earlier descriptions of, say “the tube hole at Farringdon St.” but at least they’re not faking grit. The highlight ‘Scribble’ follows – a live song on the set-list in various guises over the last few years, it now gets a proper home and the five-note chorus is as uplifting and perfect as the one in Spielberg’s Close Encounters. There’s some lucky dip words spoked by a London girl down a telephone line at the bridge in the song and as she reels off “‘download’, ‘something’, ‘paradise’”, and the song breaks again there could hardly be a listener who doesn’t wish they were being carried above a crowd in clubland ecstasy.
But this is not a club album. Intangible as it is, there’s something deeper than just dancing in these songs. Much of the electronic sound throughout is familiar, testament to the explosion of electronic music since Underworld first appeared, but despite this tracks such as ‘Between Stars’ find them perfecting their genre again. The album ends with first the pretentious ‘Moon In The Water’ (which would have been awesome without the lyrics) and the Blue Nile-esque closer ‘Louisiana’ which is the closest thing to a ballad that Underworld have ever made; though Hyde’s trembling voice echoes Mark Hollis on a cassette that was being eaten by the tape player.
Overall, an album not quite out on a limb as the first two, and quite the ‘happiest’ they’ve made, but there are far to many moments of Underworld bliss on it to not love it.