For the first eight years of his recording career, you knew where you were with Burial, and it felt like a predictably desolate place to be. This—as the actually pretty accurate cliché went—was music for London night buses and soggy spliffs, music that buried its emotion under layers of needle hiss, with song titles like “U Hurt Me” and “Broken Home” as evidence of the sensitive soul hidden in the gloom. This perception shifted with 2013’s stunning Rival Dealer EP, which was shot through with dialogue about love and the power of self-acceptance. Stepping out from behind the curtain, Burial shared a message with the BBC’s Mary Anne Hobbs in which he called the EP’s songs “anti-bullying tunes that could maybe help someone to believe in themselves,” a shockingly unambiguous message from a producer who had always come swathed in mystery.
Shock Power of Love, a joint release with London producer (and former Pitchfork contributor) Blackdown, continues in this emotionally explicit line. Standout track “Dark Gethsemane” is a showcase for Burial the softie, a song that radiates emotional sincerity with a side order of wonder. The opening five minutes are fairly standard Burial, with a mangled yet still elegant vocal floating over a lurching UK garage beat and pointillist synth riff. The second half of the song, however, makes a radical about-face, as the UKG propulsion of the first five minutes dissolves into a kind of ambient gospel. A sonorous vocal sample tells us, “We must shock this nation/With the power of love,” over a submerged “Billie Jean” beat, handclaps, and gorgeously nebulous orchestral chords that bring to mind “Touch,” the lovelorn tearjerker that soundtracked Daft Punk’s farewell video. Consciously or not, “Dark Gethsemane”’s closing section feels like a grab for the French duo’s crown as kings of heart-tremblingly sincere electronic music.
Burial releases inevitably provoke furious online debate, and—sure enough—early reactions have been decidedly mixed, with some commentators convinced that the revered London artist has lost his touch. But it’s easy to imagine that Burial has entirely stopped giving a toss what other people think (if he ever did at all), given his other contribution to the split EP. “Space Cadet” rides a featherweight pop-trance beat, bouncing bass pulse, and the kind of circular synth riff you might find in a well-intentioned children’s cartoon, its sugary rush only partly offset by Burial’s habitual palette of vinyl crackle and soused vocal samples. The song has some beautiful moments—notably the choral rush of “Take me higher,” about halfway in—but the overall feel is too meager to really convince. The song ends with two minutes of rinky-dink dance pop that could have come straight from a second-generation Mario Bros. game.
The flimsiness of “Space Cadet” makes it an oddity in the Burial catalogue, a weakling shadow to the emotional outpouring of “Dark Gethsemane.” But at least you can see the sentimental throughline connecting the two tracks. The relationship of these songs to Blackdown’s two productions on the EP—“This Journey VIP,” a brooding take on a song originally released on Dusk and Blackdown’s 2020 album RollageLive vol 1: Nightfall, and Blackdown’s twinkling remix of Heatmap’s “Arklight”—is far less obvious.
Blackdown and Burial clearly have history—Burial remixed Blackdown’s “Crackle Blues” in 2006 and released “Temple Sleeper” on Blackdown’s Keysound label in 2015—and Blackdown’s bassy post-dubstep productions come from roughly the same place as Burial’s own work. But there’s little on these two tracks—beyond, perhaps, the enigmatic presence of muted vocal samples, which you could imagine Burial making far better use of—that suggests they simply had to be on this release. Blackdown’s two tracks are enjoyable; Burial’s, even when they stumble, are remarkable, a tribute to his expansive artistic vision over Blackdown’s rather more workaday productions.
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