Burial - The new 'Taxi Driver'

Joe Walsh

I wish to suggest an alternative soundtrack to the classic 70s movie, Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'. The new soundtrack to it will be the electronic album 'Burial', released in 2006 on Hyperdub Records.

The character Travis, in Taxi Driver, played by a young Robert De Nero, begins as an insomniac roaming New York at night, trying to kill time. He takes up a job as a taxi driver, and has encounters with other characters, including stalking a girl who ends up dumping him, which pushes him into further despair. His night shifts, the much mimicked inner monologues about wanting to wipe all the scum off the streets, the brooding shots of the taxi driving through the city, the seedy street action, and most of all De Nero's performance of an unhinged everyman, have made this film a seductive and iconic example of the outsider.

The album 'Burial' situates itself similarly; alone in the urban streets of the night. Most of the tracks have the sound of rain always falling, and in this space, one's own dramas happening anonymously in the city. Over the ambience of this pouring rain, an arrangement of dance music's textures and rhythms, which sites personal drama and suggests a reconfiguration of it; trembling bass sounds hark as a terror or an anxiety, shards of synthesizer sounds drift in and out of a humming desolate space. Personal feelings as manufactured through dance music genres. This makes it a contemporary urban soundtrack in this way. The album makes the listener wallow in something outside of the headspace that the character of Taxi Driver finds himself brooding in.

"Someday a real rain will come and wash this scum off the streets"

The album comes with a concept 'a sound-portrait of a near future South London submerged in water'. So in this new Taxi driver the special rain that will one day come and will wash all the scum off the streets has happened. He now has something else to worry about and the imminent rain has swamped Travis' linear thoughts. He looks out his cab window to only see what is submerged and will be submerged eventually.

As Travis does his cab driver shift, it rumbles across the street. The camera moves alongside the bumper of the car, the street light's warm and electric tones move along its yellow laminate. The bluey black street lit tarmac moves underneath as if a shark cruising the ocean floor, and occasionally passes through steam from heat vents. Travis looks at himself in the rear view mirror that is framed by out of focus streetlights. I have seen this so much in Hollywood movies, but is particularly good in this film with De Nero's insomniac brood, all these street materials alluding to the plot layed out by his thoughts, which he writes out in a journal.

It is here would work a particular track on the Burial Album, called 'Southern Comfort'. A fractured drum and bass groove that rolls along edgily, kind of like the cab itself. Rave sirens drift in and out, replacing the incidental suspense cues of the old soundtrack with a wailing that is found in a bygone dance music genre, an anxiety effect for hardcore clubbing. The drum and base groove is not quite right in that it falters and misses its momentum on occasion and reflects Travis' jilted mind in a metallic way. His thoughts are now less the consistency of the 1970s film stock of soft focus streetlights, or the hazy shop signs reflected in the windscreen. No longer are these scenes accompanied by a drippy saxophone solo that lays a kind of pity upon Travis. Burial's empathy now is the sound of shop shutters closing abruptly.

Another regular beat in the track goes on relentlessly. At certain points it isn't in time with the other layers of sound working with it. It is these moments where the rhythm is an unyielding cycle of bass, impersonal yet absorbing. This is not attended by the musician, but is from a pulse generated by a machine. This machine's mechanics go on with or without the listener. It has a warmth and could be danceable if anyone is present to interpret it. It could be an amplification of the factory machine that built Travis' minicab, that made the tarmac the cab drives upon or the cogs in the 35mm camera that films the car bumper.

As this dance music plays over the movie, temporarily, personal feelings are conveyed spacially and via textures of electronic dance music. The listener can wallow in it, yet simultaneously be told it's a manufactured sadness.

Travis' angry rant has been somewhat dwarfed during this scene, and as he drives on, he feels in the company of electronic sounds that seem melancholic almost intrinsically.