Review: Rival Dealer is Burial’s finest work yet

Burial Rival Dealer
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opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN

One of the last things we hear on Rival Dealer, the new EP from William Bevan, aka Burial, is a clip from Matrix and Cloud Atlas co-director Lana (formerly Larry) Wachowski’s Human Rights Campaign speech last year, during which she came out: “…I find the courage to admit that I am transgendered, and that this does not mean that I am unlovable.” The clip is not distorted or pitch-shifted, it’s not shrouded in reverb, and Wachowski speaks in complete sentences. In other words, it’s not a typical Burial vocal sample (though Rival Dealer boasts dozens of those, too). These words, as audible in the mix as they are considered and articulate, are an unexpected tip of the hand from a producer usually given to more oblique expressions. They provide what Burial’s music has never offered listeners before: a prism through which to listen to the many disembodied voices that haunt these three tracks, a compelling framework for their interpretation.

The opening title track kicks off with an assertion that “This is who I am,” but the next 29 minutes of music ruthlessly undermine that confidence. Voice after voice pines for a beloved who is somehow absent, via loss or deferral or imminence, whether it’s the R&B singer who threatens, “I’m gonna love you more than anyone!”, the late-night wanderer who stutters, “Come down to us,” or the woman who pleads, “Who are you? Why don’t you come to me?” Usually we’d read these lines as being about relationships, and in a sense they are, of course, but it becomes increasingly apparent that the mourned entity here is as much the self as it is another. One speaker confesses, “Excuse me, I’m lost,” and another offers poor consolation: “Sometimes, you’re trying to find yourself, and you will be, always,” as if the platitude alone will make the pain go away. One of the samples is from the movie Alien – “There’s something out there” – and we already heard it on a Burial track from last year’s Kindred EP, “Loner,” where it was used to set an ominous tone reminiscent of the film. Here, however, it’s more of an explanation of the desperate, seemingly never-ending, and potentially tragic quest for self-understanding that motivates and frustrates human experience from Oedipus right on through to Wachowski. “It’s about sexuality, it’s about showing the person who you are,” comments one speaker in the midst of the title track, but what if you don’t know who you really are? If you feel empty or divided against yourself, what is there to show?

Burial changed music. It’s one thing to hear a record and realize with a chill that nothing quite like it has ever existed before, which is what myself and many others experienced when the then-anonymous British producer’s sophomore LP Untrue dropped in 2007. But it’s another thing entirely to observe as a record forcibly recasts the whole musical landscape in its own image. We’re still feeling the aftershock of that album. Its trademarks – earthshaking rumbles of bass nearly beyond human frequency; clattering junkyard interpretations of U.K. garage beats; cathedral-sized vacuums of echo and negative space; a pitch-black melancholic atmosphere; and, above all, those fragmented, mutated voices – have so totally consumed the contemporary musical imagination, it’s nearly impossible to delve into any genre even tangentially related to dance music (pop, hip-hop, ambient, rock, you name it) and not encounter the ghost of Untrue there. There are predecessors for Burial’s sound – including widely embraced classics like Dummy, Kid A, and Silent Shout – but without his synthesis, there’d be no dubstep crossover, no widespread resurgence of affection for late-‘90s urban radio, no James Blake, no xx, no Weeknd, no Drake, no TNGHT, no Skrillex, no Yeezus, no cloud-rap, no “PBR&B,” no Tri Angle Records, no lyrical cult of ambiguity, and probably a lot less Rihanna. Subtract Untrue from the popular music of the last six years and you subtract much of what makes that music so distinctively of its time. It is the line in the sand of this young millennium’s musical imagination. There is before Untrue, and there is after Untrue, there’s for and against it, but there is no gainsaying or undoing it.

So the downsides to creating an iconic piece of art are the twin obstacles of insurmountable expectations and uncountable imitators. But even though Burial began life as an anonymous recluse and has given us no word on a third-full-length, he’s hardly pulled a Kevin Shields. Nor has he been content to rest on his laurels, though if anyone can boast laurels comfortable enough to rest on, it’s Burial. Instead, while new music across several genres sounds increasingly like the stuff Burial made six years ago, he’s gone on ahead and asserted his supremacy, his ownership of this sound, by refusing to let it stagnate. A slow but steady stream of EPs, singles, and collaborations has captured Burial being downright restless, actively advancing his sonic identity by pushing in new and exciting ways at the generic constraints he helped design. Rival Dealer finds him making a huge leap forward from last year’s masterful Kindred: it engages more openly with mainstream dance music and non-dance genres, it features more original synth work, it eschews accessible structures in favor of multi-movement marathons. But most important of all is that Wachowski sample, because while everyone else is still breaking a sweat trying to match Burial’s chorus of ghosts for mystery, spookiness, and sorrow, Burial has bravely begun to dissipate some of that sought-after obscuring aura. Untrue made us feel something nameless and fresh, but Rival Dealer is the work of an artist confident enough in his themes and his motives to tell us what we’re feeling and why. In this case, sex, gender, sexual identity, the importance we place on those things, and the disjunction between the idea of them and lived experience are the unsettling threads that run through Rival Dealer. It is Burial’s finest work yet.

It’s also a triumph of the EP format, one that challenges the critical practice of assigning more weight to the full-length. Burial’s EPs have increasingly felt less like stopgaps and more like the final product, the real deal. Rival Dealer is only three tracks long but it’s as rich as many LPs. It opens with the first genuine, no-holds-barred Burial banger, an eerie, apocalyptic, high-BPM assault on club soundsystems and human motor functions. It’s a side of Burial we’ve only glimpsed until now. Likewise, though his music has occasionally possessed outright beauty, it’s never sounded like “Hiders” does: two lush minutes of gorgeous piano trailing its own echo like a shadow before a bracing 4/4 beat detonates. The high doesn’t last long, though, and the comedown is awfully rough. The one-two punch of “Rival Dealer” and “Hiders” is amazing but exhausting, and that’s when “Come Down To Us” moves in for the kill. Like Kindred closer “Ashtray Wasp,” it’s a ravishing, showstopping epic that emotionally devastates with a force earlier Burial material only hinted at. Against a gargantuan beat, flashes of sitar, and a wash of raindrops, its central hook – a twinkling synth line that could be lifted from the big slowdance number in the prom scene of some ‘80s teen movie – swells, recedes, and then swells again, immersive and enveloping. By the time it’s over I’m completely drained; I don’t think I’d want to hear more than 29 minutes of this stuff. I’m not sure I’d make it. (Though of course, if a third Burial album ever arrives, I’ll happily try.)

Like the rest of the EP, “Come Down To Us” is full of very dark narratives: dangerous codependence, truancy as a futile alternative to self-destruction, blind terror at the too-real possibility of being by oneself and not knowing anything about who that self really is. But it also offers a single, repeated sentence of comfort before its Wachowski-quoting coda: “You are not alone.” Burial’s music consistently captures the world at its bleakest, but by pushing his sound further and making his themes a little clearer on Rival Dealer he also unearths both a shade of redemption and the possibility that that might be enough. [A]

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