, April 24th, 2013 03:59
"Absolutely", Karl Hyde remarked during a 2000 interview, when asked if he was worried that his newfound sobriety would eliminate part of what made Underworld's evocative style so unique. "It wasn't so much that everything I did previously was written that way - it was more a key to being uninhibited: going to places and hanging out longer than I should have. Stories would stick to you: you just had to walk through them..." Hyde has always found the beauty in decay; by making company among the drunks and the downtrodden, he assured himself a constant supply of broken phrases, many of which were written in a tiny notebook to later become scattered among Underworld's lyrics. The old Underworld website was filled with photos of broken-down cars and sofas, and there was once talk of an abandoned-sofa-a-day calendar. Each one has a story to tell. As it turns out, sobriety did not quite ruin Hyde's sensibilities; his lyrics became more positive, and perhaps a little more lucid, but no less confusing. In addition to his "day job" as half of Underworld, he has taken up painting, and even created a documentary about the borderlands of Essex. All this after spending most of 2012 directing the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics with Rick Smith (Underworld's other half) and High Contrast. Now we have Hyde's first solo album, Edgeland, a collaboration with Leo Abrahams. The album's nine tracks function like a travelogue through the outskirts of the city; from dive bars where drunks "do spacewalks" at 2 AM, to cafes where "boys in white jeans walk fast between raindrops, trying not to get their sharp threads wet". Granted, it is a travelogue as seen through the eyes of someone who is constantly lost in thought; disjointedness pervades through the album both lyrically and musically. The songs often sway back and forth; they are too structured and busy to be called ambient, but the music is often freeform, drifting in and out of its own meter. Beats sometimes exist, but they remain in the backdrop while other rhythmic elements subtly build up and fill in the blanks. Even if you're unable to concentrate on the lyrics (which undeniably are the focus here), the sound design has that same stream-of-consciousness quality. This was not unheard of for Underworld - the music here is reminiscent of the stuff that lives on the deep end of their albums, such as 'Tongue', 'Skym', 'Good Morning Cockrel', and 'Louisiana'. The bluesy, early-morning atmosphere on "Slummin' It For the Weekend' should be familiar to those who those who have followed Underworld closely. However, the sounds here are more organic than you'd find on any of their albums, with only a few purely electronic elements. This is music that would fit a morning walk as much as it would on the late night bus ride home. The imagery is often quite clear; on 'The Boy With the Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers', Hyde sings "Someone built a shrine where they fell off the cliff/someone brings fresh flowers as a symbol/where the land drops away". And later: "It's not the end of the world, but if it was you'd see it from up here/have you ever been to the end of the world?"
It is quite remarkable that through Hyde's rather expansive career - first as the singer/big hair-haver in Freur, second as frontman of the men who regrettably brought you 'Underneath the Radar', thirdly as the crooner/shouter we all know today - he never really made a signature sound for himself. We know he plays guitar, but his most memorable guitar moment is picking it up and dancing around on the Everything, Everything DVD - and not playing it. It seems a little ridiculous on its surface for a man whose first single dropped in 1983 to write a song called 'Should Have Been a Painter'; but given everything he's had a hand in, we know is that Hyde is more artist than musician. He's still a blank slate, looking for inspiration and meaning on the edges of town, the places that other well-adjusted folk are likely to just write off. Thus, it's fitting that Hyde's first solo LP is hard to pin down. Opener 'The Night Slips Us Smiling Underneath It's Dress' (who says the man's obtuse?) focuses on clustered piano notes and plays like a harder edged version of something that Brian Eno would do.
There are some pieces that are more songlike ('Angel Cafe', 'The Boy With the Jigsaw Puzzle Fingers'), some that are pure atmosphere ('Cut Clouds', 'Sleepless'), and some that build up and go on a journey ('Shadow Boy'). Even the more rhythmic tracks will have elements that play against it; the bubbling beat on 'Angel Cafe' is a direct contrast to the simple folk tune at its core, while caffeinated clicks and pops pervade nearly every corner. Tracks like the invigorating 'Should Have Been A Painter', 'Slummin' It For The Weekend', or the surreal 'Jigsaw' are Hyde at his best; full of carefully placed sound, great engineering, and with enough hookiness to make them worth hearing over and over again. The deluxe version includes more - 'Dancing On The Graves Of Le Corbusier's Dreams' is a full on euphoric dance tune that recalls "Scribble", while "Final Ray of the Sun" is a resonating, surreal take on the blues. Both are among the best on this release. While having to seek out bonus tracks is generally obnoxious (especially as the album just came out), Edgeland paints one of those sonic worlds that's so lush that you won't mind spending more time there.