It seems that every time Burial releases a new song, it is either hailed as the greatest release of his career so far, or the worst track he has ever made. Such divisiveness is a rare occurrence within music fandoms, where opinions usually meet at the median, but Burial is different. From his first release he was a voice in establishing a new movement in garage music and in dubstep, and by the time Untrue released in 2008, he solidified himself as one of the most important innovators of the 21st century. The sounds that he creates have been mimicked, dispersed, deconstructed, and reinvented since he first made waves in 2006, but even still it is incredibly easy to differentiate a Burial track from any of his imitators.
Burial’s focus has always been on the music, choosing to remain anonymous until 2008 where he revealed his identity as William Bevan. But even so, he has never done a live show, virtually no image of him is on the internet (leading to the false rumor that Four Tet is actually Burial), he rarely releases new tracks, and rarely does interviews. So knowing so little about the man himself, everything that fans have to pull from is based almost solely on the music that he releases. Putting such high investment into deconstructing the works of Burial causes an attachment to the sounds and style that he has since perfected, so when he releases something that changes the formula it is met with hostility and skepticism from his biggest supporters.
And that brings us to “Rival Dealer”, the new EP that was released a week early.
It’s hard to argue that an artist needs to occasionally explore new territories in order to stay creative, but Burial’s new EP has forfeited most of the conventions that have been praised from his last few releases in favor of a completely new sound; a sound that is more aggressive and less passive, more immediate and less subtle. Still, at its core it is still Burial at his finest. This drastic shift in style and purpose has Fact saying, “Rival Dealer might well go down as Burial’s best record to date – it’s certainly his most impressive since Untrue.” Critics & blogs have been praising it, with Ryan Schriber saying, “Burial believes in extraterrestrial life and supports LGBT rights, as if we needed more reasons to consider him a supreme being,” Gorilla Vs. Bear tweeting, “too late to change year-end lists but on 4th listen and goddammit,” along with many others.
But fans on Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter haven’t taken as kindly to the new EP and new sound, one user saying, “My overall opinion is mixed. It is praiseworthy that Burial still seeks and tries to evolve his sound but the direction is wrong if you ask me,” another saying, “Mixed feelings.. Great samples like always.. But for the first time, Burial depressed me,” and another saying, “I’m in my second listen and I gotta, I’m not really feeling this EP. Production wise and style wise.” That’s not to say that there aren’t other fans out there who have been enjoying it, but it’s an interesting divide that’s worth noting.
Burial has never been one to make music for fans though. Every track that he releases is a personal expression and his way of speaking to the public. That has become even more evident on this release. The title track uses a sample that says, “This is who I am” that repeats over and over throughout the song. “This is who I am,” is a statement, a declaration praising acceptance of identity and sexuality, a pervasive theme throughout the entire EP. But it could also be read as statement of identity for Burial himself, that he IS his music, not William Bevan. And if the EP isn’t about Bevan’s own sexuality and acceptance of identity, then it is a push to create a conversation about what sexuality is.
The music is the first aspect that we notice, so the difference in sound and mood is what is turning people away. However, it isn’t the music that makes this release so important, but the issues that he presents and the manner that he presents them. It’s rare that electronic music attempts to comment on social issues, especially LGBT issues (although there is a lot of the LGBT culture stemming from electronic music, it’s rarely addressed so directly), but for them to come from Burial is a statement not only to his ability as an artist, but as a true visionary who continues to push limits of the genre that he resides in.
The music after multiple listens then takes a backseat to the samples and the issues presented, but it is still just as important in achieving its purpose. The immediacy and brashness of the first track is necessary not only to break the listener of passivity that every Burial release so far has lent itself to, but also to display the immediacy of the topics that he is trying to discuss. The somber, beautiful final track “Come Down To Us” asks us to “step into the unknown,” tells us that “this is the moment where you see who you are,” and ends with a heartfelt sample from Lana Wachowski (formerly Larry) during her speech accepting the Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award about her past, becoming transgender, and learning that she can still be accepted and loved. The music creates a mood that is soothing, allowing us to reflect on what we’ve heard, but occasionally drifting into darker territories. “Let yourself go,” and “Don’t be afraid”, because there are people like you out there, and you are not “unlovable”.
The EP as it moves from start to finish takes us on a sonic adventure through self-discovery beginning with the fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of failure, self-loathing, moving to understanding, and ending with stepping out and accepting one’s self. “You are not alone” we are told towards the end of “Come Down To Us”, before the last sample plays out faintly in the background asking us “Who are you?” And that is where we are left; a question posed to spark not only internal consideration, but discussion about LGBT rights, gender, sexuality, identity. It’s the bravest release of 2013, and the boldest work Burial has released so far. Part of the reason that people may not like this EP is that he is addressing issues that they are uncomfortable with, but to me it would seem that most Burial fans are at least accepting of the LGBT community in some way. Most of them probably just don’t like how large of a shift in style he has made, choosing to reject change. But as with many Burial releases, many people who dislike the EP now will likely come to praise it by the time his new single/EP/LP is released, and then the cycle will begin again.
We may not know why he chose to address such topics, whether this is out of personal struggle that he faced and had to overcome, or if he had close ties to people who are going through this type of identity struggle. But the tracks speak for themselves, with a clear and distinct voice asking us to take everything into consideration and reexamine the value and impact that not just electronic music, but all music can make. One thing is for sure, it is going to be difficult to top this release.