It’s amazing Underworld are still capable of making an album this good. Dance music has passed them by. They’re now remembered more by beard-stroking critics than dancers. “Pearl’s Girl” is a banger but it will just confuse the people over at Ibiza. They have existed for, what, 35 years? Just so you’ll have a clear picture, Hyde was born in 1975. He spent most of his life in Underworld
Dance music is now completely different. Underworld specialized in artistic and long-winded dance music. It’s not about bass drops or catchy hooks, but atmosphere and grooves that lock the listener. There’s a culture shock effect when you listen to their old material. In a way, nobody actually wanted this record. The same audience that danced their lives to “Cowgirl” are now too old for clubs and weirded out by Skrillex. Does anyone still hear “Cowgirl” at clubs?
Underworld should be tired by now after 35 years and losing relevancy. Listening to Barbara, and all of this vanishes. Yes, they sound out of touch. Yes, they sound old. They sound like this in the best way possible. There’s no drugged audience to cater to or fans who aren’t sure if they want a copy of their most recent hits. Dance music passed them by so they can do whatever the hell they want.
The album is a logical progression for Underworld. It feels like all this time they were meant to get here. Underworld’s vision of dance music has always been highly artistic. It was dancefloor friendly, but also disconnected from dancing. Weird ideas overpowered grooves. Songs go on for a while, slowly morph until you’re engulfed by them. Nothing has actually changed in this album.
The album sounds most like a re-visiting of Dubnobass from a grown perspective. Barbara has those same techniques, only this time it’s softer, calmer and more satisfied with itself. Underworld don’t sound like they’re pushing forward because they don’t need to. “Juanita” was a desperate attempt at proving everyone how Underworld was the best 90’s dance act. “I Exhale” opens with stomping drums that aren’t aggressive. Underworld are fine dancing on their own.
From there on the album grows more reflective. It gets better until it finishes with the godsmacking of “Nylon Strung”. It’s a house classic and easily one of the best songs of the year. At first, it’s just a blissful house track. Then halfway through it you realize it’s pure bliss. The best thing about it is how effortless it sounds. Underworld are now experts. They know the genre inside out and how to make it work.
The sequencing also raises the album quality. Albums like this make you realize how important sequencing is. Every track sounds better in context. “I Exhale” is the loud, long opener that needs to grab attention and set the stage. It’s also the most different track here, and it needs to be done away with first. “Low Burn” and “If Rah” are typical Underworld track – developing slowly, and having both a strong atmosphere and groove. The ambient middle sets the mood for the last two, which pull the whole ‘Blissful House’ thing. “Nylon Strung” can only be a closer – a song so happy that celebrates its own album.
A lot of bands lose relevancy as they age. It shouldn’t be this way. When you work, the harder and the more you practice the better you get. Yet in music artists often drop their classic in their first years and vanish. Something about art makes people run out of drive, or ideas, or passion. Old age in artists is generally a bad sign.
An album like Barbara is the ideal album by elder statesman of a genre. Underworld are going whereever they feel like it. They’re disconnected from modern Dance music, so they just explore their euphoric side with “Nylon Strung” and their Ambient Pop in “Motorhome”. Nowhere in the album do they sound tired (Okay, perhaps on “I Exhale” for a bit). They don’t have to push themselves and make a “Juanita” anymore. After establishing a unique personality, all you got to do is mine it.
The album title is appropriate. Underworld do sound like they face a shining future. This won’t gain any critical attention since, in the end, the music sounds too old for this. Albums that generate buzz are contemporary. That’s a shame, because it’s not an insiders-only album. You don’t need any experience with music to enjoy something as beautiful as “Nylon Strung”. Hopefully there’s more where that came from.
3.5 nylons out of 5