Burial, Tunes 2011-2019

It’s fitting that William Bevan, an artist who uses samples of songs from the past to forge music decisively of the present, should reassert himself as one of this era’s defining musicians with Tunes 2011-2019, a decade-spanning compilation of his hyperdub work. Sequenced by the artist, who performs as Burial, the set largely travels backward through his scattered EPs and singles released in the wake of the landmark album Untrue (2007). In the process, the compilation suggests that Burial has not, like many musical geniuses, lost his way but only deepened his singular sound, and its capacity to reflect modern social and psychological angst.

Consider the opening string of ambient tracks, Burial’s most recent, and critically dismissed, work. Separately, the bleary, harsh sunlight of “State Forest,” the nervy urban exploration of “Nightmarket,” and the crackling void of “Beachfires” may seem aimless. Together, however, they form a nebulous whole, foregrounding the passages of negative space that Burial has always threaded through his music. These tracks represent not an abandonment of the mutant soul of Untrue but the refinement of Burial’s ability to sonically capture the miasma of depression.

Tunes 2011-2019 links Bevan’s recent standalone singles to the compositional structures of the Rival Dealer and Kindred EPs. These EPs took all the core components of Burial’s first two albums and radically reconfigured them into sweeping, if still impressionistic, epics. Vocal samples, once used to coalesce the feeling of a track, here act as fixed points in undulating compositions. Burial, as ever pulling evocative snippets from his sample sources (e.g., “I used to belong,” “I’m gonna love you more than anyone,” “stay alive”), creates a shifting series of perspectives that, in almost Joycean fashion, construct a macro view of social malaise via a collage of overlapping individual streams of consciousness.

Relative to the abstract ambient tracks that precede it, the EP material offers concrete moments of clarity, particularly Rival Dealer, in which cathartic eruptions of major-key pop acknowledge the queer undertones of Burial’s genderfluid vocal manipulations as well as the history of dance music’s gay underground. “Come Down to Us” even concludes with an extended, unaltered clip of Lana Wachowski’s speech on coming out as trans to the Human Rights Campaign. Rival Dealer was stunning upon release in 2013 for how explicitly Burial tied the material to a social identity, but somehow it is even more surprising in this compilation, trailing the artist’s later ambient material.

As Tunes 2011-2019 winds its way back in time to conclude with the Kindred and the Street Halo EPs, songs that once seemed like major departures from Untrue now feel much closer to Burial’s classic sound. Tracks like “Loner,” “Stolen Dog,” and “Ashtray Wasp” expand the post-rave anhedonia of his second LP into city symphonies of disconnected souls. It is here, in his most club-ready work, that one finds the compilation’s most piercing reflections of mass solitude, and a reminder that — though he crafts mostly instrumental music with vocals sampled from R&B’s declarations of love and loneliness — Burial is as much a street poet of 21st-century disaffection and alienation as Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed were for the late 20th.

The jacket of Burial’s debut album pictured a satellite view of South London at night, grounding the music in the immediate socioeconomic anxieties of the artist’s surroundings. Tunes 2011-2019 inverts that street-level observation to reflect the universal experiences of the global austerity era. Anguish and hope have always coexisted in Burial’s music, and Tunes 2011-2019 suggests that his recent work, far from a departure from his classic material, instead shows a radical expansion of the means with which he expresses that contradiction.

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Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in publications such as Slant Magazine, MTV...