With the release of Psyence Fiction U.N.K.L.E. emerged as a novel brand. The album’s grandiose space-opera concept functioned as a framework into which the talents various and disparate acts could be channelled. This created an album which consolidated the progress that had been made in trip-hop, hip-hop and post-britpop over the preceding years, like Now That’s What I Call Music! meets Masterpiece Theatre.
When Did the Night Fall, continues the U.N.K.L.E. formula: a variety of acts curated and produced by James Lavelle, but drops any attempt to link individual tracks with narrative, or even mixing.
Lavelle’s production remains influenced by Massive Attack, I.D.M. and britpop, but instead of refreshing the brand with more recent movements Lavelle instead draws upon styles predating U.N.K.L.E. altogether. ‘Follow Me Down’ finds guest vocalist Sleepy Sun doing her best Post-era Bjork impersonation, ‘Caged Bird’ wanders dangerously close to Morcheeba territory, ‘The Answer’ is steeped in vaguely bangla-sounding world music and closing track ‘Another Night Out’ sounds like a re-imagining of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.
If you are wondering whether this panoply of influences makes for a disjointed album then please worry no more, for When Did the Night Fall is infuriatingly consistent. With the exception of the aforementioned ‘Another Night Out’ and ‘The Runaway’ (which finds Lavelle and ELLE J firmly in Dummy territory) the rest of the songs follow a rigorous formula.
Insistent bass and drum loops open the song, followed by a guitar or synth hook and some 8-bit bleeps. The vocals then arrive, earnestly chanting some asinine but dramatic lyrics along the lines of “run, run, run ‘til you’re overcome” or “there’s so much meaning, we are believing” until the chorus arrives and the singer becomes buried under layer upon layer of suffocating synthesizers, counter-melodies, reverb, bells and whistles. At this point Lavelle invariably throws in a dramatic pause, reducing the noise back down to vocals and bass, until the drums return and the process is repeated. The result is ennui-inducing waves of noise where even worthwhile hooks and melodies are drowned amidst over-produced gloss.
After fifty-two minutes of sonic pounding, the closing track ‘Another Night Out’ comes as a blessed and belated reprieve. For the first time in the album the orchestration, though still grand and overbearing, is stripped back to a potent mix of piano, brass and cinematic strings. In this rare display of restraint the underlying talent and ambition that once made U.N.K.L.E. so vital are briefly visible. It is not an apt closer to the album, but it is an olive branch of hope that the brand of U.N.K.L.E., though perhaps never reliving its zenith, can aspire to poise and grace once again.