Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future
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More than thirty-five years ago in Cardiff, Wales, current fifty-somethings Karl Hyde and Rick Smith initiated a musical partnership that would subsequently produce some of the most masterfully crafted and indelible dancefloor anthems (“Cowgirl,” “Pearl’s Girl,” “Born Slippy .NUXX,” “Jumbo,” “Push Upstairs,” “Two Months Off”) the world has ever heard. Fast forward three-and-a-half decades, and more than five years have passed since the multi-dimensionally talented, Essex based electronic duo known as Underworld released their most recent album, Barking, to critical acclaim.
Refusing to succumb to complacency, the pair have been quite busy during their group hiatus. Hyde took a solo turn with his 2013 debut LP Edgeland and collaborated with Brian Eno on not one, but two projects—Someday World and High Life—released within a two-month span in the middle months of 2014. Expanding upon Underworld’s longtime camaraderie with Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire), Smith was handpicked by the film director to assume oversight of the musical vision for London’s 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, and soon thereafter, scored Boyle’s film Trace (2013) and TV drama Babylon.
Released this past Friday, nearly twenty years to the day that they blessed the world with their classic fourth long player Second Toughest in the Infants (1996), Barbara Barbara, we face a shining future is not simply the group’s ninth studio album. It’s one of their finest song suites yet.
Co-produced by Hyde, Smith and drum and bass stalwart Lincoln Barrett (a.k.a. High Contrast), who previously co-produced two tracks from Barking, Barbara Barbara’s title is inspired by a bittersweet revelation from Smith’s late father. “It was one of the last things that Rick’s father said before he passed away,” Hyde explained during a recent interview with the Netherlands’ 3voor12 Radio. “Rick’s mum, Barbara, was fearful, I guess, of the future. And he said to her, ‘Barbara, Barbara, we face a shining future.’ That is such a cool thing to say. When I heard that, I said that has to be the title of the record.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, Hyde and Smith’s extended time apart, the recording process for Barbara Barbara proved to be an organic and liberating one. “With this record, it was really clear we’d get together in the studio and we wouldn’t have any ideas, we wouldn’t come with beats or any music,” Hyde recently told Billboard. “We’d just turn up with ourselves, some equipment every day and start with nothing except for a couple of mates really excited about being together.” The resulting album is a poised, refreshingly conceived, and life-affirming set of seven songs that demands to be heard and enjoyed, preferably whilst wearing your most comfortable, background noise-cancelling pair of headphones.
The album’s positive energy is evident right away, with the revved-up opener “I Exhale.” A synth-driven stormer, the LP’s lead single finds Hyde delivering his signature deadpan monologue, which kicks off with the optimistic refrain “Life, it’s a touch / Everything is golden.” The funky “If Rah” follows, its crunchy, distorted rhythms building toward a euphoric payoff midway through, around the four-minute mark. As with many of his compositions, Hyde’s ramble, which includes the repeated mantra of “Luna, Luna, Luna, Luna,” intriguingly rides the fine line between improvisation and script.
The back-to-back, mid-album pairing of the subdued, acoustic guitar-laden “Santiago Cuatro” and the chilled-out glitches of “Motorhome,” a hypnotic, plaintive hymn that admonishes to “keep away from the dark side,” provides the album with welcome downtempo moments to balance the otherwise more propulsive fare.
A remarkable three of Barbara Barbara’s seven tracks can rightfully be considered among the duo’s finest work across their prolific career repertoire. Featuring the meditative chant of “be bold, be beautiful, free, totally, unlimited,” the shimmering deep house of “Low Burn” inhabits an atmospheric, cinematic soundscape reminiscent of throwback ‘90s Underworld. The airy, multi-textured “Ova Nova” finds Hyde exploring the “paradox of choice” while abandoning his spoken word comfort zone in exchange for gentle and emotive vocals, bolstered by the voices of his and Smith’s daughters in the background. A grand celebration of vulnerability and intimacy in their various forms, the soaring, melodic euphoria of closer “Nylon Strung” is arguably the album’s most magical moment. Across the song’s lilting chorus, Hyde proclaims “Open me up / I want to hold you, laughing,” a fitting end note that punctuates the album’s profound sincerity and optimism.
An official band statement refers to the album as “head music to dance to,” an apropos description of this inspired, masterfully constructed record’s essence, which is sure to reveal hidden treasure after hidden treasure upon repeated listens. Throughout the entirety of Barbara Barbara, Underworld sound more invigorated and unencumbered than they have in decades, suggesting that this next phase of their storied career is destined to be a shining one, indeed.
Notable Tracks: “I Exhale” | “Low Burn” | “Nylon Strung” | “Ova Nova”