Since the incredibly high watermark set by his self-titled LP/compilation in 2006, Burial’s sound has gone through a handful of changes — some for the better and others not. Untrue upped the moody vocal samples with considerably more popular appeal, and the killer Street Halo took the man born William Bevan’s sound to the dance floor with swinging techno ruffage. But while 2012’s critically acclaimed “Kindred” enamored many, I personally found its rhythms anemic and its samples cloying — a massive step back. Its extended runtime, an overindulgent 11 minutes, certainly didn’t help, with seemingly myriad drop-outs and reprisals reinforcing the weakness of the track’s elements. As such, news of Truant/Rough Sleeper, a duet of extended Burial material, was personally disheartening. But things have switched up again chez Burial, resulting in some of his strongest work to date.
In fact, “Kindred”‘s much-superior B-side “Ashtray Wasp” is its closest referent. Whereas “Kindred” is one long track, “Ashtray Wasp” is a suite of sorts with a handful of distinct, self-contained movements, and that structure carries over to Truant / Rough Sleeper. The first third of “Truant” is a lovely, moody slice of Burial at his best, while the middle part is a heads-down roller lifted up by the advent of big, arena-sized pads. The last third is the most interesting section — a handful of sketches and diversions filled mostly with static and vinyl distortion, but whose surprises (check the bass line around 10 and a half minutes) intrigue just as soon as they depart.
“Rough Sleeper” is again in thirds, and its first part is a particularly melodic and poppy moment in Burial’s oeuvre, due in large part to how clear and un-obstructed it is by noise. The extended middle section is much the record’s finest moment, as shuffling house rhythms and square-wave bass lines mingle with affecting chord progressions and vocal samples ripped out of a self-help book. A rhythmic music-box sample is dropped on top to hammer the point home: this is the most uplifting thing Burial has ever done, and the turn from the downtrodden seems to suit him rather well. The record bows out with what sounds like a moody 80s guitar sample as heard from a bus window during a downpour — not necessarily the most captivating couple minutes on Hyperdub, but a fitting way to see the record off.
If all of the hype surrounding every Burial missive and the many online circle jerks accompanying them has you seething with anger, I doubt Truant/Rough Sleeper will go very far to change your opinion. But it capitalizes on the strongest parts of Burial’s more recent material and cuts some of the fat, resulting in two very strong tracks. Why bundle everything into two tracks instead of cut them up as one normally would? It’s difficult to say; it’s honestly a bit unnecessary given there are obviously discrete tunes here. Perhaps it’s an attempt to get the mp3 generation to sit down and listen to the equivalent of a whole vinyl side. They might skip ahead to minute four of “Rough Sleeper” regardless, but Burial’s insistence that these be two long pieces of music is not totally misguided, since, like his much-loved albums, they work best in context together.