Burd Early – Leveler

Burd Early

It’s easy to be a critic. To be an armchair musician, pointing out how albums could have been mixed better or how a song would have been stronger with the deletion of a particular lyric or melodic phrase, is as easy as picking apart a coach’s play calling, a President’s domestic policy, or a celebrity’s personal life. And, no doubt, such activity is our right as Americans, but exercising the right to speak our minds when we think someone else is wrong almost seems to come laden with the assumption that we could have avoided the mistake in question. For anyone who has ever tried to write a song, this discrepancy comes into clearer focus.
Burd Early’s second full-length, 2002’s Magnet Mountain, was an easy target for a few reasons. First, he was clearly working in a genre of songwriting largely dominated by the incomparably sly D.C. Berman, a man whose wit is so dry that you get dehydrated just listening to him, and James Angelos (a.k.a. Burd Early) just wasn’t quite ready for his prose to carry the weight of such a dour sonic backdrop. Second, his songwriting, while insightful and pleasantly tuneful, was held down by too many lyrical vagaries and meandering melodies, making the songs blend together a bit too much in the final mix. Where the stage was set to support a massive personality, Early walked out and gave us a lot of atmosphere and empty space, asking us to figure out who he is before he’ll tell us. With Leveler, Early has an opportunity to give us a little more information.
And he does. The opening “Screening” blows away just about anything he has done previously, with its hurtfully lost melody, stuttering brushed drums, and rumbling acoustic guitar converging to create a climate of perfect desolation, Early’s voice rising out of the moaning darkness to narrate it all. Similarly, the pretty chirping electric guitar of “Tangent,” complete with cascading tom hits and occasional appearance of piano and vibes, is built on such a sturdy melody that its seven and a half minutes aren’t a second too long despite its economy of notes and melodic phrases. Further, the cryptic crawl of “Deeper Breath,” with its twin violins and acoustic fingerpicking, falls in line as one of the standout moments on the disc.
That’s not to say that the album is without its dull moments. The far off rumble of “I Will” never quite gets fully rolling, just as moody “Phonecall Away” feels a bit directionless. The alternately impressionistic and bitingly hooky “Here We Go Again” does well to add variation to the set but overstays its welcome a bit. Still, although the songwriting on Leveler represents something of a leap in quality both melodically and texturally, Early still remains somewhat indistinct as a songwriter. Not that he should go for cheap humor or overtly gruesome narratives, as his existential musings generally fit the mood of his aesthetic. That may very well be his intention, but, nonetheless, there are very few moments that make you sit up in your chair and take notice of just what he is saying.
Of course, to say that we have to hold back our subjectivity because we are not musicians is a poor cover for bad musicianship, but it’s worth noting just how hard (and how comparably rare) it is for a songwriter to genuinely emerge with a unique personality through the songwriting process. And in all fairness, Early has taken a considerable step forward with this release, placing himself somewhere between Songs: Ohia, Damien Jurado, and M. Ward in the early running for the best indie singer-songwriter release of the year. In the end, the final result is a largely compelling, if slightly uneven, album that few of us could ever come close to bettering.