The powers of nature on the human condition
The vast spaces and wilderness of Alberta provided the inspiration for Southern Ontario country folk artist Spencer Burton to make his fifth studio album, ‘Coyote’. Time on the road followed by the claustrophobia of city life drove Burton to seek tranquillity in which to reflect. His voice has a lightness, almost sense of relief that belies the solemnity of his musing. The result is a very pleasurable form of musical therapy. Burton’s musical journey has taken him from the indie punk of Attack In Black into solo alt country under his nom de plume Grey Kingdom. Now just plain Spencer Burton his music resonates with a natural authenticity that reflects the world where he feels most at home. ‘Things I Can’t Do’ opens to a gentle strum before bursting into life with an openness as vast as the landscape in which Burton wrote, “Oh without you nothing changes/ No more steps no more stages/ Oh lord it’s true that’s there’s nothing I can do without you”. A guest appearance by Caitlin Rose lifts the spirits higher.
The ballad ‘Memories We Won’t Soon Forget’ juxtaposes fond sentiments of family young and old against anger at the way that the countryside of these reminiscences has been replaced by housing development. Money always wins. Reflection is a central theme to the album. Taking a literal definition ‘Memory Lane’ has Burton getting lost, “Where the roads don’t connect so I’ll find out the best way”. At a relaxed tempo his first-rate musicians enhance the ebb and flow of his thoughts.
Burton’s musing takes him to places and times he’d rather forget. The mournful pedal steel and opening line of, “Another night on the bottle, another night on the town/ Everything starts going up, before it starts going down” sets up the tale of drunken regret that is ‘Lonesome Dove’. Burton sounds far from Canada, more like the floor of a Texan honkytonk bar. He also sounds eerily like Lyle Lovett. ‘Hard Times’ continues the theme with a heft aided by the robust organ line.
But to bracket Burton as only a purveyor of doom and gloom would be to do him little justice. ‘Further’ has the urgency of faith in that no matter how bad things may have been, there is always hope. The confident rhythm feels like a heartbeat that gathers pace into the uplifting plea, “Further are the lonely, further are the tired, further are the young”.
Throughout Burton comes back to where he feels he is most at home, the natural world. If that means harking back to a simpler life then that’s fine too. Deft picking keeps ‘Horseback’ trotting along at a clip, “So send me on horseback/ To the northern skies/ Tell me that it’s safe and I’ll fly”, sums him up perfectly. ‘Nothing’s Changed’ underlines that easy feeling. A friendly, “have a strawberry of a day” from a complete stranger gave Burton the idea “Strawberry of a day/ The people say/ No nothing’s changed”. The luscious lap steel is none other than Lloyd Green of among others, Cash and Dylan fame.
‘Coyote’ is not merely a hankering for a simpler life but an affirmation of nature’s healing powers. Burton has benefited from these and if a couple of listens to this expertly crafted album sends the listener to at least throw open the windows then his message too has weight.