Happy 20th Anniversary to Underworld’s fifth studio album Beaucoup Fish, originally released March 1, 1999.
Although it’s been 20 years since first peering inside, part of me will always relish roaming the subterranean labyrinth of Beaucoup Fish. Indulging its call to the afterhours rambler within, I flailed along impishly, never quite knowing if it was allowing the night to unfold spontaneously or simply letting my mind spiral. The truth is, it didn’t matter. The blurred ride was kinetic, and I devoured the thrill of the spin.
By the time Beaucoup Fish, Underworld’s fifth album, materialized in 1999, the energizing spirit of the British electronica outfit was firmly implanted in the techno terrain. Karl Hyde and Rick Smith, artistic yin-and-yang duo since 1979 and Underworld co-founders, had joined forces with DJ Darren Emerson in the early ‘90s. Together, they charted a new vision, moving the band past its muddled though palatable electropop beginnings to a flashy, club-savvy sound that earned massive critical acclaim.
Where Underworld’s first two albums remain relatively unknown, their third and fourth LPs, Dubnobasswithmyheadman (1994) and Second Toughest in the Infants (1996), deftly showcase the band’s now-signature multidimensional style: Hyde’s spoken-word stream-of-urban-consciousness poetics coolly slung against a sea of rave-friendly beats—all angled by just the right edge of guitar-fueled rock.
After 15 years of pouring themselves into their passion, Underworld’s time had finally arrived. Their ‘90s oeuvre instantly affixed itself to the UK’s progressive house dance scene—which was the other side of Britpop in many ways. More visceral than emotional, the music ignited unrestrained, pleasure-seeking crowds who packed into sweaty clubs, pressing deeply into hedonistic nights. Superficially at least, drugs were fashionable accessories versus filthy habits—and, in the glamour of the dance floor, it was all but expected to lose yourself to this sybaritic world where everything glowed and shone and swirled.
Enter “Born Slippy (Nuxx),” Underworld’s thunderous megahit from Danny Boyle’s cinematic anti-homage to heroin, Trainspotting (1996). The perfect portrayal of this terrifyingly entrancing realm, the film’s soundtrack became an immediate classic with mainstream appeal surpassing its alternative subculture origins.
Three years later, capping Underworld’s decade of breakthrough success and newfound stardom, the talented trio released Beaucoup Fish. Although the 11-track album boasts many moments conducive to bouncing bodies and mindlessly euphoric bliss, it also elicits profound psychological searching that carries you to the brink of dissociative lunacy before whipping you back toward a bigger world filled with cosmic beauty.
Perhaps due to their inventive flair for genre-crossing composition, Underworld always managed to hit on more cerebral chords than other acts in the techno scene. And Beaucoup Fish effortlessly delves into even darker rumination, exposing the dynamics of a mature psyche and roundly capturing the shadowy demons that tantalize us all.
The atmospheric masterpiece starts off with one of my all-time favorite Underworld songs: the epic, 12-minute “Cups,” an imaginative track that slinks along jazzily over an aqueous, hypnotic bassline. Hyde’s hushed vocals beckon, inviting the listener into a familiar yet foreign soundscape. As the song plateaus and reaches its undecipherable end, it begins to unravel, approaching a chaotic madness of sorts. But rather than succumbing, Underworld resets the mood and jostles us into “Push Upstairs.” At about a third of the length of the album opener, the chart-topping single playfully arranges alliterative phrases while palpably punching the air and naturally begging our limbs to follow.
Next up is the buoyant and dreamy “Jumbo,” and it’s Underworld at their best. In addition to referencing the album title (“I've caught beaucoup fish in Reverend Burton”), the song’s lyrics elucidate the temptation to surrender to nocturnal whims: “The night wants me like a little lost child / Locked in the safe place / Lookin' out the window / The dark move fast pass the window / The dark on the other side of the locked door.” The catchy single breezes along, drifting through a thousand short stories to disorienting, yet invigorating effect. The words weave bits and snatches of random conversations into a delightful whirlwind of freeform poetry, epitomizing Underworld’s gift for transforming common mediocrity into gritty urban gold.
An entirely different kind of single follows. Frenetic and ferocious, “Shudder/King of Snake” fits its name and quickly snaps us out of the city reverie of “Jumbo.” It’s one of the album’s most manic tracks, offering nearly 10 minutes of unadulterated frenzy. It works in context, but it’s a little too aggressive and not one of my favorites.
The whispery, silvery “Winjer” is one of the album’s most enigmatic, quiet and subtly brilliant tunes. The murky vocals murmur, almost indistinct from the music. It seems to slip past you secretively, making me crave it all the more.
Continuing in the slower tempo is “Skym,” an anguished contemplation rooted in internal conflict, possibly about a relationship to drugs, a lover or both. On an album that’s more pensive than poignant, “Skym” stands out in its stark emotional vulnerability.
“Bruce Lee” is a rhythmic rocker that pushes Beaucoup Fish into yet another direction, but again somehow completely works. Its catchy, head-bopping vibe belies the violent reality of stray bullets and gang activity. The taut, street-informed refrain, “Life kid suck the box,” reads like quintessential Underworld.
Flinging us into a trance-like groove is “Kittens,” a bright instrumental reprieve that celebrates the alchemic powers of the dance floor. Overall, it’s relatively innocuous, but still imminently listenable.
As we head toward the conclusion of Beaucoup Fish, “Push Downstairs” delivers a delirious, sloping reworking of the earlier “Push Upstairs.” It’s a graceful come-down song that lulls me into a mellow lounge-y mood.
Bewitching and perplexing, “Something Like a Mama” is the penultimate track and lyrically I have absolutely no idea what it’s about. But, like so much of the album, it dangles strange samples and impressionistic images that pull my mind into unique crevices, sending my synapses into rapid synesthetic fire.
Finally, proving that Beaucoup Fish is unflinchingly magical and legendary from start to finish is the ridiculously electrifying “Moaner.” Turbocharging every energy-exuding cell in my body, this song is perfect Underworld in every way, offering a decadent denouement to a decade of accomplishment. Admittedly, it took me awhile to discover this rousing gem—probably because I was too obsessed with playing the first song, “Cups,” on repeat!
Having known this stunning album for half my life now, I can safely say that I’ll never tire of it. Every experience with Beaucoup Fish makes me love Underworld more.