Transcending the Crisis

Streetlands, by Burial

Burial’s new Streetlands  EP may be his most beautiful work to date.

Beautiful but dead. Millennium Mills, Woolwich.

Liberated from both his historical ties to dance culture and his need, on recent releases, to underscore the negative space created by their absence, it drifts along like a lowland fog, occasionally dense with musical detail, but otherwise diaphanous.

This makes the evocative title somewhat misleading. None of the music feels particularly down to earth. The footsteps that played a major role in much of Burial’s early work are missing.

If the EP’s three tracks make contact with the street, it is vaporously, leaving the pavement slick in their wake. 

Nor is the music as geographically grounded as that early work. 

Although it is still possible to imagine Streetlands as a time capsule of Burial’s South London home,  the sounds we associate with the big city have been filtered out. 

On a stormy day, using microphones that don’t sound like they had windscreens, these three tracks could have been recorded in the bucolic countryside or out at sea.

But this quality does not deprive the EP of specificity. Even in the burgeoning field of ambient music, it immediately calls Burial to mind. 

Indeed, much of Streetlands’ beauty derives from its relationship with previous stages of Burial’s career. When we listen to these three tracks, we are definitely encouraged to hear them as Burial, instead of some new project.

Given how radically the United Kingdom has changed during the two decades in which he has been making music, this sense of continuity is extremely important. 

Even if Burial is no longer documenting what it feels like to walk home from a club, he still wants us to feel what it’s like to miss that sort of experience.

In other words, Streetlands is a monument to loss. 

Unlike its predecessor, however, January’s startling Antidawn, this record is less interested in fragmentation and dispersal than it is in the strategies used to cope with them.

That’s where the beauty comes in, however cold and forbidding.

Opening track “Hospital Chapel” conjures a space of existential emptiness, simultaneously external to the psyche and woven into its very fabric. 

The title track opens with an echo-drenched voice straight out of a horror film declaring that “there’s somebody out there” before giving way to layers of high-pitched warbling and wind chimes amid the static for which Burial has been known since his earliest releases. 

Both songs impart a sense of imminent revelation, the promise that can make the pain of the present bearable. We’re about to find something out. It’s hard to know what it is, but the vocal sample suggests it’s not going to be welcome. 

Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak? Given the revolving set of right-wing personalities heading up the United Kingdom this year, it’s not unreasonable to conjecture.

But it’s not until the EP’s final track “Exokind” that we get a sense of what lies beyond, both for Burial and for us. 

Collaged from his usual array of sampled textures, pipe organ-like drones, and minimalist keyboard figures worthy of Mike Oldfield, the song takes us to a post-human location where our humanity can, paradoxically, be revived.

This fantasy of place stands in stark contrast to the hard, mean truths of the post-Brexit UK. 

Perhaps that’s why the music hearkens back to the 1970s heyday of prog rock, which emerged from a similarly disenchanted nation, economically challenged and geopolitically irrelevant after divesting itself of most of its colonies.

Streetlands advocates that we turn inward, but not in the service of escapism. On the contrary, it calls us to imagine a future in which new problems come into focus and the old ones gradually fade from view. 

From Burial’s perspective, the melancholy fixation on community has become irrelevant. What we must do instead is navigate our way through the thickets of individual experience, rejecting whatever threatens to reduce our autonomy. 

It’s not hard to hear echoes of Tory efforts to weaken civil rights following Brexit, by replacing the 1998 Human Rights Act with new legislation, limiting the influence of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in the name of strengthening British sovereignty.

Clearly, that’s not a part of Burial’s new EP. But it helps to understand the political environment the record is operating in, and to which it is in part responding.

Ambient music isn’t known for its politics. But, if this record has any subgenre signifiers, left ambient would be fair. 

Not necessarily in reference to a doctrine but a vision of a future in which Britain’s present crisis, fuelled by libertarian nationalists, has been left behind.

If Antidawn was a break-up record, in which Burial seemed to be searching for a beat-less future, Streetlands shows what can happen after that search is set aside for other pursuits.  

When the Music’s Over

Photograph courtesy of Simon. Published under a Creative Commons license.