Underworld: Dirty Epic
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
Somewhere in the hardbound, dust-jacketed Bible of Pop there lies a formula, a kind of master one-sheet for the rules and conditions that make for a "classic moment in pop music." Something along the lines of "thou shalt not exceed three-and-a-half minutes," "thou shalt discuss God or sex but not both at the same time," "thou shalt have a discernable snare," etc.
I won't go so far as to say that "Dirty Epic" shatters all conventions of pop songcraft, but it certainly places little faith (no pun intended) in the most obvious ones. Rarely does less happen over the course of ten full minutes in quite so grandiose a fashion as it does here. Released as a double-sided single with "Cowgirl," "Dirty Epic" is analogous to taking a single golden moment, a suspended realization, and stretching it to its snapping point. That point being, of course, the beginning of "Cowgirl," which follows it on the album, and which many fans find impossible to separate from "Dirty Epic." Taken on its own it teases gently—though ending with the sound of a bomb, it's really just an exercise in sustained tension and interrupted, never actualized release. There's no "money shot," if you will.
I mean, where's the chorus here? Is it "I get my kicks on Channel 6?" Is it "here comes Christ on crutches?" Is the whole song just one gigantic verse sucking off its own chorus with a "velvet tongue?"
Riding a drum machine beat so wet you can imagine fish swimming past in the LCD glare, "Dirty Epic" is ten minutes of two-note keyboard fills, decaying organ tones, and a small army of synths sounding like "real" instruments, synths sounding like mechanical devices, and synths sounding like, well... synths—shimmering, pulsating, all those things people use filtered waveforms for. In fact the whole back half of the song could be dumped on a hard drive and used to source a baker's dozen of trance anthems. Not that we can blame Underworld for that—the year is 1994 and no one's yet imagined Ferry Corsten (well, maybe his Mother), "electronica" is still being said with a straight face (well, not by me), and the band itself is busy reinventing themselves from goofy white funk mooks into one of the most dynamic recording and touring acts of the decade. They were able to do this because they discovered a secret weapon - most bands occupy themselves with writing songs, but Underworld realized that what they needed to create were settings. Settings bridge the gap between dance music (concerned with space, atmosphere, continuance) and rock music (focused on immediacy, melody, dialogue).
The meaning of the song is certain—it's a meditation on the shared boundaries of sex and religion, nothing more, nothing less. It incisively pursues a sense of meaning perceived as being lost in the world of "big screen satellite(s)," "off-peak electricity," tube holes and phone sex, 501's and Doris Day. The conclusions, like the object of their desires, remain nebulous. We know that Karl says he "will not be confused," but that doesn't help our own shadow-dancing. The real clue comes in the change in one word of the song’s many mantras—the light that blinds the narrator's eyes in the first half now burns them. Catharsis? Could be. I prefer to thing of it as the sting of resolve.
If you want to be brutally honest, pretty much every Underworld song is the same—half-sung vaguely Beat-influenced (in a good way, mind) poetry over a cascading waterfall of beats, two-to-five-note patterns layered so densely that complex melodies are implied. Not that they all sound the same, but the structure is carried over intact—much like New Order. In fact, one could argue that Underworld served the same purpose in the 90's that New Order did in the 80's: they showed every other rock band on the planet how to make proper dance music. "Dirty Epic" is an apt enough summation of that unique accomplishment—blitheness rather than ennui in the face of "the modern age;" layers of sound piled so thick that even when the "big" sounds come to the fore they sound like natural rather than self-conscious hooks; and a set of production values dense and sturdy enough you could rest your drink on it. "Designer voodoo," then? Pretty much.