Dear Departed, the second album from Sam Burton, arose from a time of rebirth. In the last few years, Burton basically started over. He temporarily abandoned the life he’d built in Los Angeles, where he’d cut his teeth performing around town and connecting with like-minded musicians. By the end of 2020, everything pointed him back home to Utah, where he stayed for a few months helping a friend rebuild their house. It was a real life metaphor, the literal construction project mirroring the personal growth Burton was experiencing. “It was a return home,” he says. “My inner world really opened up.”
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There’s a freedom in leaving everything behind, and Burton embarked on a wandering phase. He went and stayed at a friends’ family home in a rural region further north in California, where he holed up in a cabin and helped the grandmother farm to earn his keep. He crashed with friends all around Los Angeles, until he found himself a new gig and a new apartment of his own. Along the way, he was writing songs. First in the cabin retreat, and then carrying them with him from one person’s home to the next. Following his 2020 debut I Can Go With You, Dear Departed is something of a reintroduction after a period of transition and transformation.
After all that time couch-surfing and writing, Burton emerged with more than enough material for his sophomore outing. He joined up with producer Jonathan Wilson to craft a more intricate, layered sound that recalled the lived-in yet immediate singer-songwriter albums of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Burton was taken with Wilson. “He gets what a songwriter needs,” he reflects. Just as he had with artists like Angel Olsen and Father John Misty, Wilson helped Burton achieve a sound that didn’t descend into retro pastiche, but rather became an evocative echo, a dream of the past. In scope, it finds Burton using a far bigger canvas than on his debut, giving the emotions therein a new sense of urgency and intensity. But the album still has an intimacy to it, like Burton and his backing musicians are crammed onto the corner stage of a smoke-filled bar in a long lost time.
From the production to the performances to Burton’s core compositions, there’s a timelessness across Dear Departed. As an opener, “Pale Blue Night” perfectly sets the atmosphere — Burton sighing over twilit strings. Many other songs, including “Long Way Around” and “Coming Down On Me,” might seem to move at an easy lope, but thematically sift through the remains of faded memories and past lives. Burton’s smoldering melodies are met again and again with ripples of piano and swells of orchestration. It doesn’t sound quite like an album anyone else is making right now, nor does it sound quite like any one identifiable moment of the past. It’s Burton rifling through his own history and music history alike to achieve a singular vision.
There’s a subtle juxtaposition at play in Burton’s writing. While he allows that the album sounds earnest and confessional, and that it inevitably drew from his own recent experiences, he was “trying not to be very ‘Dear Diary’ about it.” Instead, the same way Burton returned to classic songwriting forms, so too did he return to certain universal imagery that could be about anyone’s relationships, heartbreak, and loneliness. He intentionally played with cliches; even if the music is often yearning and beautiful, there’s a sly wink. It was a way of processing life’s changes without getting maudlin about it. “There’s loss, there’s all of that in there,” Burton says. “You can’t write a joke unless there’s truth in it.”
Dear Departed gives us Burton’s twist on eternal lovelorn themes, carried by his twist on classic songwriting. Even if he himself might approach it skeptically, there’s a poignance to that, the idea of returning to foundational musical forms in order to excavate universal human feelings. Characterizing it as an album wracked with pain and loss, Burton spends many of these songs saying goodbye to a version of himself, a passage of young adulthood, the last strains of innocence.
That holds true until the very end, when closer “A Place To Stay” offers some hope for the next chapter. “Where the valley’s low there is peace to find/ But now don’t the stars look so very high,” Burton sings. There’s that smirk, that other thing, the undercut. From down in that peaceful valley, the stars, and thus the climb back out into life, are a long uphill battle away. In the end Dear Departed is the sound of Burton — maybe a bit wearied, maybe a bit more spiritually attuned, maybe a bit bemused — beginning the ascent.
Sam Burton © Kathryn Vetter Miller
Sam Burton’s upcoming European tour dates
Aug 31 to Sept 3 — Dorset, UK — End of the Road Festival
Sept 6 — Brussels, BE — Botanique (Witloof Bar)
Sept 7 — Paris, FR — L’International
Sept 8 — Haldern, DE — Haldern Pop Bar
Sept 9 — Berlin, DE — Monarch
Sept 10 — Amsterdam, NL — Paradiso (Upstairs)
Sept 12 — Manchester, UK — Gullivers
Sept 13 — London, UK — St. Pancras Old Church
Sept 14 — Bristol, UK — Crofters Rights