Sam Burton “Dearly Departed”

Partisan Records, 2023

Gentle reimagining of classic 70s Canyon sound, shaped by producer ‘du jour’.

It’s a story we’ve heard many times before and it ought to be getting just a little wearisome by now. Artist faces existential challenges in their life or creative endeavours – moves away to a bucolic rural idyll – engages in philosophical examination of their existence and/or meaningful toil in a salt-of-the-earth endeavour and re-emerges with a record of rediscovery, renewal and, hopefully, renaissance. Sam Burton is the latest in a long line of artists and musicians to follow this path Cf McCartney, Dylan and the Band, Ronnie Lane through to Justin Vernon, the success of whose 2007 LP ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’  is perhaps a beacon for the recent rush of such reflective runaways. What differentiates Burton’s efforts from these others is that ‘Dear Departed’ is only his second LP, which seems a touch early in the career to be experiencing such circumstances.

The narrative of the restless wanderings of the unsettled artist is offered as the background for this record. Burton himself notes that this was his attempt to make sense of life’s changes without getting mawkish and “trying not to be very ‘Dear Diary’ about it.” On balance ‘Dear Departed’ is mostly successful in these aims, seeing him come full circle back to the classic songwriting of his debut ‘I Can Go With You’. He left music (L.A.) to get back to normality (Utah) and in doing so found a way to get back to music (L.A.), to the structural forms of his art, in much the same way as the building of houses or the farming of the land that he experienced during his retreat.

These experiences clearly informed the songs on ‘Dear Departed’ and the sound of the record as a whole. Burton’s writing here deals with eternal themes of loss, hurt, longing and renewal. It’s almost as if he is bidding farewell to his younger, guileless self and acknowledging (if not actually welcoming) his transition to a more world-weary and perhaps even sceptical existence. In this new guise Burton processes and offers up his personal loss and grief in generalist terms, ways that are less autobiographical than they are collective/universal. In listening we experience a general aura of downbeat gloominess, even languor. The record offers an overall mood rather than specific effects or emotions from particular encounters. This is both its strength – a sense of lucidity in which we can become enmeshed and lose ourselves, and also its weakness – a creeping sense of ennui as we search for particular moments to heighten or bring into focus our experience.

This lyrical uniformity of mood is heightened by the musical accompaniment. Whilst there is an occasional lightness of touch evident that manages to cling on to the last vestiges of Burton’s innocence (‘Long Way Around’ ‘Maria’ ‘Coming Down On Me’), the overriding sonic appreciation is of a pensive, yearning and lushly atmospheric sound. One that surfaces barely-there melodies from layers of rolling piano, surging string arrangements and folksy fingerpicked acoustic. This sound is heavily indebted to producer Johnathon Wilson. Anyone who is familiar with Wilson’s work, either his solo records or his productions for such as Angel Olsen, Father John Misty and Margo Price will know just what to expect here. The reflections of a 1970s Laurel Canyon sound coloured with a contemporary palette that manages to avoid the static retro feel of other records mining a similar seam. While it may be difficult to listen to this LP without thinking of iconic records by Glen Campbell, John Phillips, Jackson Browne or Poco, it remains a resolutely contemporary LP, which echoes the glories of the past without trying to recreate them. In this way it is playing the same sandpit as Mapache, Ben Schwab’s Sylvie or GospelbeacH.

At times the production can seem a touch overplayed, with strings that strive a little too hard for an emotional resonance that may well be present anyway, without their service. There is also a lugubrious, pensive haze that engulfs the record and is not relieved by the reliance on such gentle tempos that rarely reach a canter. Despite this ‘Dear Departed’ is a lovely tender record. It has a timeless lived-in intimacy at its core, one that draws us in and makes us feel at once comfortable and yet mournful. It manages to avoid the clichés and tropes of the music from which it draws and, along with a few eminent contemporaries, shows a way for this music to remain relevant and engaging for a demanding contemporary audience.


About Guy Lincoln 66 Articles
Americana, New Country, Alt-country, No Depression, Twangcore, Cow-punk, Neo-traditionalists, Countrypolitan... whatever.

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