UNKLE - Never, Never, Land
On its release in 1998, UNKLE’s debut album Psyence Fiction was given a critical kicking. It's hard to see why; DJ Shadow’s typically imaginative arrangements combined with some interesting guest vocalists (Thom Yorke, Badly Drawn Boy before he hit the big time) made it a superior exercise in genre-hopping. DJ Shadow (and his real name Josh Davis) are all over the credits of that record, while the name of James Lavelle, supposedly the core of UNKLE, pops up with less regularity.
Five years later, UNKLE unveil their follow-up, and the critical reaction is even worse. This time, however, it’s somewhat justified. Which isn’t to say Never, Never, Land is a disaster, just that it is often disappointingly bland (especially considering the array of collaborators). Between the two albums, UNKLE lost DJ Shadow, and, at a guess, this is why Never, Never, Land fails to live up to its predecessor. The eclecticism is gone; the production rarely allows much differentiation between tracks, and we’re left with a record that tends towards a certain monotony.
That said, first track proper Eye for an Eye is excellent. Coming in on a big guitar riff, it juxtaposes dialogue from The Thin Red Line (on the destructive nature of mankind) with the sampled vocal, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth... run, run, run but you sure can’t hide.” Urgent and meaty, you can assume it’s a dig at the Bush/Blair coalition (especially given Lavelle’s appearances at anti-war events).
In a State (featuring the vocals of Richard File, Lavelle’s partner on this record) isn’t bad either, thanks to a memorable tune, and is fairly indicative of the album’s sound as a whole: lightweight beats, acoustic guitar, strings, vague hints of trance. It’s airier, less intense than anything on Psyence Fiction.
After that, things become more variable. Safe in Mind features Josh Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age); it’s okay, but really just a lesser rehash of UNKLE’s No-one Knows mix. I Need Something Stronger is a waste of time, a sort of ambient interlude in collaboration with Jarvis Cocker (not on vocals, I might add) and Brian Eno. What are you to me? sounds like a more wallpapery version of In a State; sure, it’s nice, but nice isn’t always enough.
The pace is upped a bit by Panic Attack, Invasion and Reign. Across these tracks we have such talents as Robert Del Naja (of Massive Attack), Ian Brown and Mani, not to mention a Joy Division sample, yet the feeling remains of an average dish just one vital ingredient away from being something more special.
A pair of futuristic ballads, Glow and Inside (think Psyence Fiction’s Chaos times two), close the album. Arguably amongst the better tracks on the record, they suffer for being at the end of what seems like a long hour.
Are we expecting too much of UNKLE, just because they play the right places, thank the right people, attract the right guests? As tricksy electronic music becomes more ubiquitous, were we wrong to presume more distance between UNKLE and, say, Dido? Never, Never, Land is ultimately an infuriating album for just missing its target, and threatens too often to blend into the background.