Alex Swhear ate a poisoned omelette for breakfast.
By now you know the backdrop – a rhythmic backbone descended from garage and dubstep. Ethereal, warped vocal samples intermittently clawing their way into focus. The crackle of vinyl, punctuating a fadeout. The faint but unmistakable rumblings of a distant storm. It’s the template Burial introduced on his scrappy self-titled 2006 debut, and then all but perfected on his landmark sophomore record, 2007’s Untrue. It was eye-popping not just due to the sheer volume of components crammed into the blender, but because it could all hang together so cohesively, so effortlessly. Burial’s toolkit was bottomless, and yet he somehow brought his myriad influences together in a singular way. And then he never made another album again.
That isn’t to say he vanished entirely. While the breathlessly anticipated full-length Untrue follow-up never materialized, Burial’s output has nonetheless remained steady. He still revels in spiking the darkness with unexpected glimmers of light: “I like putting uplifting elements in something that’s moody as fuck,” he told Fact Mag, in an exceedingly rare interview from 2012. “Make them appear for a moment, and then take them away. That’s the sound I love…like embers in the tune…little glowing bits of vocals…they appear for a second, then fade away and you’re left with…something that’s eerie and empty.”
But the particulars began to evolve. He ramped up his ambitions, churning out mammoth-sized suites two and three times the length of the average Untrue song, even as he was opted for leaner, more modest release methods (EPs and singles). As we stare down a future where popular music is dominated by one-off singles and algorithmically assembled playlists, his decision increasingly reads as prophetic. He’s watched the value of the album format collapse around him. So it didn’t matter that he appeared in bursts, at his whim, in whatever dose he felt appropriate (perhaps as a direct reaction to the fanfare that enshrouded Untrue). Fans tried to parse logic from his moves, but ultimately the lack of pattern only bolstered the mystique.
And the mystique was the point. While he has since been unmasked, Burial spent his initial years in total anonymity, sparking intrigue in a fanbase desperate to pinpoint which London sewer, exactly, he was residing in. Even now that we know a bit more about Burial (real name: William Bevan), concrete details remain vanishingly thin. But his lack of an identity is very much an identity.
With music so aching with loneliness and with a blank slate of a public persona, it’s easy (natural, even) to project an image onto Burial. Each isolated sample gives voice to something Burial is feeling; every abrupt beat change is to be decoded like a mood ring. It’s become nearly impossible to disentangle the enigma of William Bevan from his songs. This is at least partially because he has so far adamantly resisted a humanizing Carpool Karaoke moment. While, say, The Weeknd has eschewed his early facelessness for winking, ostentatious Mercedes Benz commercials, Burial avoids anything that might betray his impenetrable persona.
To cap off the decade, Burial recently released Tunes 2011 to 2019, a sprawling, uncompromising 2.5-hour compilation that wrangles nearly every song he composed over the past decade into one place. Tunes pulls from each solo Burial release of the last nine years (omitting, curiously, 2017’s “Rodent”), including many of his best songs. It assembles some of the most quietly powerful music of the past decade back-to-back-to-back. Everyone holding out for an Untrue sequel has instead been gifted something weirder, wilder, and ultimately probably better.
It has been assembled in reverse chronological order (with a handful of exceptions). That puts his most recent material right up top, including this year’s cavernous “State Forest” and 2017’s Subtemples / Beachfires release. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but his newest output is considerably more ambient than what came before it, less melodic and more slippery to grip onto. It’s all about atmosphere and the power of suggestion; stuff like “Beachfires” bears more in common with the minimal, moody soundtrack to a young adult video game than it does to the frenetic restlessness and tightly-wound density of, say, Kindred. Sequenced this way, the opening is sort of numbing; you’d be hard-pressed to pinpoint this compilation as a starting point for Burial newcomers, even though it contains a bunch of his very best work.
Things take off around the time you hit “Hiders”, the euphoric centerpiece of 2013’s brilliant Rival Dealer EP. “Hiders” marked one of the most surprising moments in Burial’s discography, uplifting and effervescent in ways that Burial songs weren’t supposed to be. It’s precisely because technicolor joy was so alien to Burial’s music that it felt so cathartic upon first sight. Here on Tunes, it loudly turns the page from the wintry ambience of the compilation’s first act, where stray windchimes and the ominous sound of a door potentially ajar represented peak intensity.
This starts off a breakneck stretch, with Burial’s most salient period (2012’s Kindred and Truant / Rough Sleeper, along with Rival Dealer) represented in its entirety. “Rival Dealer” is a sweat-soaked rave, as fevered and kinetic as anything he’s done, and considerably more dangerous than a song sampling Gavin DeGraw has any business being. “Loner” tumbles into a menacing synth death spiral; similarly, “Ashtray Wasp” feels like it’s hurtling to the depths of something sinister.
“Come Down to Us” is in its way as unexpected as “Hiders”, tender in its message of acceptance and individuality. It ends on a speech from The Matrix filmmaker Lana Wachowski about coming out as transgendered. Burial has described “Come Down to Us” as an anti-bullying song, and it feels like a life raft, a proclamation of solidarity with the hopeless. This level of sincerity could be deeply cheesy, but Burial sells it; it’s less a maudlin public service announcement than a sunnier, equally logical endpoint for the alienated protagonists he’s always embraced.
The nearly 14-minute “Rough Sleeper” is a full-fledged journey, with its mournful organ backdrop and warped “light surrounding you” vocal sample particularly hard to shake. “Truant” is equally gripping, leading with a haunted “I fell in love with you” refrain but splintering down a number of divergent pathways; it tumbles into an unexpected, screeching punk interlude before winding down for good. The trio of Street Halo songs that wrap up the compilation feel almost quaint coming after songs as gargantuan as “Ashtray Wasp”. But they are lined with the same Burial touchstones – unnerving atmospherics, the hiss of static, dissonant tempo shifts, and desperate vocal samples rippling in and out of earshot – that defined his sound from the start.
Tunes 2011 – 2019 caps off a majorly accomplished decade for Burial, a streak that built on the accomplishments of Untrue in ways both entirely logical and totally unforeseeable. And while the supposed predictability of Burial’s style ultimately became something of a meme, his discography dipped into wildly different extremes (compare the manic sprint of “Rival Dealer” to the minimalist chill of “Subtemple”, so restrained you’ll want to check it for a pulse). It’s anyone’s guess where Burial will be at the end of the next decade, but we can only hope he will still be this restless, rummaging through his trove of influences, ready to bend them into the language that only he can truly speak.