Published Feb 19, 2021Miles away from his Attack in Black and Grey Kingdom days, Spencer Burton has decisively thrown his hat in the ring with Coyote, vying to be one of contemporary country music's most significant and compelling songwriters.
A good-humoured soul, Burton is approaching mid-life at one of the worst times ever. Pandemics and ecological collapse have fostered a kind of nihilism that has eroded social decorum and communal courtesy and concern. Such things weigh on Burton so heavily, he does his best to focus on a time when life on Earth filled you with enough good warmness, the hard, negative chills couldn't quite get to you all the way.
Bolstered by lush production (Soaring backing vocals! Pedal steel guitar orchestration!) and forsaking any stylistic irony for substantive sincerity, Burton is seizing the day and going for broke. By and large, this dedication to his craft seems to be bolstered by a palpable gratitude Burton has for the family, friends, and fans that support him and help keep hope alive. A lot of this joy is measured in moments.
On "Things I Can't Do" and "Hard Times," Burton seems to be singing about and to a specific subject, whose existence means he can exist; even the mundane stuff you get to do every day is supported by someone you're in a relationship with. Have five minutes to stare into the middle distance? Could be because someone else is sorting out dinner for you and the kids. There are a few instances here, such as "Memories We Won't Soon Forget," where Burton's lyrics conjure that sentiment or serve as a direct testament to someone else, who emanates warm light in the darkness of life. The aforementioned tune cites a baby's first steps or early speech and also a first date and a wedding activity. It's not dad rock but this is definitely dad talk. He uses his songs to send signals of appreciation towards those who choose to not only carry on in hard times but share their life with someone else, which, when you think about it, takes a considerable amount of sacrifice. Burton is not oblivious to what makes a tandem bike roll.
Initially jarring, the radio-friendly drumbeat for "Further" makes the song sound deceptively sunny. Indeed, before long, Burton is talking to us like a gentler Travis Bickle, calling for the rain to wash away the less than appealing side of humanity. It's an urgent, anthemic song with dynamic dips and crescendos and female backing vocals, pushing Burton to emote with the biggest voice he's got.
Things calm down for the pedal steel-soaked "Breath," which, again, contemplates a life measured by where it has been and what it has experienced. It suggests that our memories are more than just that; they are markers of something more profound — the things our minds have decided are the most noteworthy parts of our lives. How does the brain decide what's what? Burton seems to know it's actually the heart's call about what gets stored up in the attic, and what is deleted forever.
There are instances where Burton gets a bit self-aware about his folk/country medium, turning an analytic eye in its direction. "Lonesome Dove" conjures a bar scene where the subject is fostering a group connection (via booze) even as they feel no link to any individual soul. Though not some straight edge broadside about the glamourization of alcohol in song, as a soother for a broken heart, "Lonesome Dove" is subtle enough to sound like it's championing behaviour it's most likely scrutinizing, with a chorus pondering "hard times," and other ways of dealing with them.
In other meta assertions, there is Burton's "Human Touch." A few years ago, Burton's old Attack in Black bandmate Daniel Romano raised a few eyebrows when he released a record called Human Touch as a limited edition download. Naming a record after one that is generally regarded as one half of Bruce Springsteen's greatest folly (the other was Lucky Town, simultaneously released the same day; furthering the nod, Romano also released another album, Nerveless, beside his own Human Touch) seemed funny and fascinating. For Burton to vaguely jump into this fray might seem like a part of some elaborate gag, but his song here is earnest and a lovely closer. Some of Burton's jokes are really sincere so we may never know whether Springsteen or Romano had anything to do with this song.
Spencer Burton retains his coy wit and wordplay for an album that is otherwise rather accessible and inviting. The insularity of this era — lockdowns notwithstanding — has led to great cynicism and detachment. With Coyote, Burton isn't nostalgic for some other time but does long for the best things about those times to return and hopefully last forever. (Still)