Remembering Things

Burial’s ‘Untrue’ Still Captures London in a Way Unmatched Since

The album’s story is one of loneliness, love, family, ghosts – it continues to sound like the city that birthed it, a decade later.

by Jamie Milton
03 November 2017, 11:15am

First things first, because it's important to get this out of the way: I know next to nothing about rave culture. A quick browse of my old Facebook profile pictures can confirm this: dubious vest in a hot country while travelling, plaid shirts and a James Bay hat, tasteless jock costume at a fancy dress party for no apparent reason, beer pong... it has been proven, many times, that I do not live on The Cutting Edge. I like electronic music, but more as an outsider. I don't know the real ins and outs of scenes or subcultures. I'm into it, but don't necessarily live it.

Even with his encyclopaedic knowledge of jungle and garage, William Bevan AKA Burial was also an outsider looking in. "I've never been to a festival," he told the late journalist Mark Fisher in a rare Wire interview. "Never been to a rave in a field. Never been to a big warehouse, never been to an illegal party, just clubs and playing tunes indoors or whatever. I heard about it, dreamed about it."

Burial's magnum opus Untrue turns ten this week and longs to be a part of something. It's a love letter to garage, written from the perspective of someone who views it from a distance, but who wants to distill and capture a moment that might have already passed. There are so many reasons why Untrue has become even more significant during the last decade: no record since has been both so acclaimed and made by someone this determined to stay out of the spotlight; its minimal, post-dubstep signature is partly responsible for James Blake and The xx's early work; and as London shifts and changes in nervous ways we can't control, it has a way of reminding us of the city's core character, and the stories of those who are easily forgotten. But while Untrue bleeds London, its spirit also links back to its creator. The album's story is one of loneliness, love, family and ghosts – it's a story beyond England's capital city that's worth unravelling ten years on.

Bevan grew up on the cusp of jungle's heyday. He was too young to attend illegal raves in the mid to late 90s. But his older brother would often come back from these nights, sit Bevan down, and play sounds of the underground he'd stumbled across. "He was the one who wasn't back, he was out there, going to places," he told Fisher in 2007. "We were brought up on stories about it… He was gone, he was on the other side of the night."

When I first heard Untrue, I was 16 and blissfully unaware of the album's touchstones. The closest experience I had to attending a rave was visiting the same newsagent every weekend and bagging four cans of beer with a fake ID (a non-existent DOB "31 September 1990" scribbled on the front), drinking them in a park and receiving a ticking off from a passing police warden if I got too bolshy. Somehow, after years of sitting in my room, plugging Muse, Green Day and Radiohead records and believing in the impending apocalypse, I fell in love with a record that made zero sense to me. I had nothing in common with Untrue's roots. Bevan showcased a know-it-all love for jungle, garage and dubstep, whereas I knew nothing. The album captured London's rare calm and emptiness, when I'd barely stepped beyond Big Ben on a tourist trail. Some of the album's percussion parts are made from the sound of ammo level-ups on a PlayStation game – I owned an N64.

But that's the magic of Untrue. It found its way into the path of thousands who lived an existence far removed from Bevan's obsessions. As he explained to Fisher, his primary objective was to make "tunes that just dive straight in". No snobbery or elitism, no pandering to an audience raised on harder, more aggressive sounds; this was a record for all. In that same enlightening Wire interview, Bevan was at pains to explain how his music wasn't just made for blokes. "[...] some dance music is too male," he told Fisher. "Men sometimes exist in this place where they don't have a fucking clue what girls go through and vice versa. I was brought up most by my mum, I'm my mum's son. I look like her. I am her."

Untrue was made in south London, as the summer days shortened and the nights rolled in. When I moved to the same area in my early twenties, miles away from home and living with complete strangers, the record clicked even more. The clichés around Untrue say it's a record for walking alone in the dead of night, or riding on night buses with a mix of bleary-eyed ravers and workers on their way to an early shift. When "Archangel"'s pensive tap-tap percussion lifts, and when the ghostly pulse of "Endorphin" pulls you in, it really does sound better in those now-hackneyed places. The album artwork sketch, after all, is one Bevan drew himself, of a "moody kid" nursing a drink and hiding from the rain on the way back from a night out. So in a sense, Untrue was designed to soundtrack experiencing London alone. "Sometimes you get that feeling like a ghost touched your heart, like someone walks with you," Bevan told Fisher. "In London, there's a kind of atmosphere that everyone knows about but if you talk about it, it just sort of disappears."

Of course, plenty of records since have captured that same intangible London atmosphere, either through minimalist production (The xx's self-titled debut, James Blake's Overgrown) or through music that instead captures the city's bustle (Mount Kimbie's Crooks & Lovers, J Hus' Common Sense). What separates Untrue is the sense that something else is afoot. Something alien and indefinable. Something previously unencountered.

BBC Radio 6Music DJ Mary Anne Hobbs felt the same when introducing Untrue to Radio 1 listeners for the first time in 2007. "It doesn't feel like it was made on this Earth," she said then. "It could be a transmission from a star in a galaxy far away. This excites senses deep in my soul that I didn't even know I had, and it makes me feel like I'm falling in love with music at a completely different and way deeper level." A decade later, she tells me over email that "Burial's music mirrors what I know of his character, in its purity. I think he captures an atmosphere that resonates with so many of us, because we know that feeling – somewhere between the spaces in which we are completely lost on a dancefloor, and the poetry of the ravers' dawn. As lovers of electronic music, we inhabit that place physically and cerebrally. A million fragments of that narrative abide in Burial's music, and nobody has ever transposed them into sound as beautifully."

Bevan fused those fragments, in particular perfecting the technique of making chopped-up vocals circuit the record, briefly coming and going like "embers," as the producer once described. The samples are extracted from unlikely sources – everything from an Usher song ("How Do I Say", on "Near Dark") to a Beyoncé oldie ("Resentment", on "Untrue") – but it's better to remain clueless about their origin: as these voices flutter by, you're left to imagine where they stem from, and what situation these strangers might be in. They rarely string together full sentences. At times, Bevan would lift one a cappella word from one song before weaving it through another. Without a tangible thread or sense of conversation, these phrases could be perceived as anything. The lead line on "In McDonalds", "Cause at once upon a time it was you who I adored…" could be a break-up note or Bevan reminiscing about jungle's early-90's thrills, which he never got to experience first-hand.

That's how it feels when Untrue reveals itself: like ghosts passing in and out of the framework. It might work best when it's listened to in isolation, but that's only because it feels like there's an extra presence by your side. Vinyl scratches, stirring dub plates and those heavenly half-there vocals all share a supernatural feel. And it's not creepy, it's comforting. Bevan has a small obsession with ghosts, and it forms part of Untrue's transcendence. Speaking to Fisher, he revealed his love for author and scholar M R James – whose early 20th-century works helped shape the phantom stories told around campfires today – and how he'd hear ghoulish tales from pub locals that he couldn't stop thinking about. "Sometimes maybe you see ghosts on the underground with an empty Costcutters plastic bag, nowhere to go," he added, speaking about the people we've been conditioned to ignore, the ghosts who seem to walk among us in life. Bevan's strange fascinations seem to fill all corners, from his perception of reality to the context of his work.

At its best, Untrue makes anything feel possible: the idea that we might not be alone on this planet; that there's someone watching over us; that behind each door in every city, there's a story waiting to be told. All of this is expressed through simple tools: warming instrumentals and a post-midnight gloom, created using nothing but basic software and Bevan's desire to make tunes his mum would like. It sounds easy, so why hasn't it been matched by anyone, let alone the man himself? Well, times change. London has changed. Even in 2007, Bevan stated about the capital: "sometimes recently I don't even recognise it." His place in the world changed too, almost as soon as Untrue blew up. And while he's continued to break down conventions and show rare moments of candour, he's spent the majority of his time in the shadows.

Perhaps the real reason he's done so is because Untrue mastered everything it set out to achieve. No record has made me feel a part of something I'm so far removed from, be it a distant scene, a bygone era or a city I'd yet to live in. It made the alien feel within reach. And it's one of those rare electronic records designed for everyone. "Some people, even when they're quite young, and they're in difficulty, maybe taking a battering in their life, but they still handle themselves with grace," he told Fisher in 2007. "I hope most people can be like that, hold it together. I wanted this album to be for people in that situation." Bevan's main objective was to make a record that felt accessible, open and uninhibited, especially for those who needed it most. Untrue isn't just empty nightclubs, night bus rides and rows of city lights. It transcends those hallmarks, instead evolving into whatever the listener wants it to become. For a dweeby 16-year-old who'd barely experienced anything in life, it meant something. And it's hard to exaggerate just how much Untrue meant to others.

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