On the cover of Doug Burr’s latest album, O Ye Devastator, is a bride, veil pulled over suspicious eyes, mouth settled into a half frown. If I had been presented with this cover in my college art appreciation class, we would have been taught to analyze every line, every color for deep meaning. That class had the misfortune of being scheduled between lunch and vector calculus, in a dark theater with cushioned seats, so I spent that hour napping or cramming at the expense of developing an eye for visual art. But I was aware of the basic principles of looking closely. The detailed attention demanded of the cover’s disconsolate bride must also be called upon when giving Burr’s album a circumspect listen.
Burr, like most truth-seeking, musical poet-prophets speaks in the subtle tongue of sweet tones and acoustic warmth. That is something like my third or fourth language, musically speaking, and it demands my nonnative patience. Burr’s oeuvre feels half-cocked somewhere between lament and triumph. It’s the sort of stalemate that could as easily drive one to madness as awe. Burr seems content to live in that tension, expecting the listener to follow.
O Ye Devastator is the fourth album release from the Denton, TX artist and it is stocked with a well-practiced narratives: One-way conversations under dark clouds; a Chicago policeman burdened under the revelation of a criminal gene; a New York yuppie reckless with fearful presumption in a Topeka diner; traditional American themes of betrayal, love, and worry. Burr bookends all of these with grave antiphons, preserving the distinctness of each episode within the overarching theme of, given what I can glean from the cover’s worried bride, a pre-nuptial foreboding.
Burr gives a generous treatment to the notion of the inescapably criminal, the deterministically corrupt, universal culpability. It’s a titanic penitence reminiscent of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose own Dimitri Karamazov was often given to insisting his guilt of all sins to the witness of all humanity. Burr’s version of damnation is similarly down-to-earth, lacking the ostentation of red horns, wearing a human face and sharing our rooms.
The album reaches a crest, in theme, pace, and volume, with the titular “I Got This Fever/O Ye Devastator.” The song considers the possibility of holy devastation, wonders what comfort there is to be found in a God who breaks the backs of cedar trees. Is there a cryptic solace in the un-constrainable thunder storm? Burr’s answer: “Love ain’t love if it don’t hate.”
Only one song – “Do You Hear Wedding Bells” – is out of place here. In it, Burr indulges in a sentimentality that is beneath him, making it ironically the least consistent with our apprehensive cover bride. In that song, the picturesque church bells with a perfect view ring empty. Now, “When We Awoke,” that is a real wedding song, a merciful awaking from a long nightmare of error. The song brings the listener back to Burr’s real story of laboring in desire without knowledge. It’s the story of a bride not knowing how it ends, sometimes doubting the groom’s own promises of good intent. It’s a story that Doug Burr knows inwardly and, by his own admission, often forgets. O Ye Devastator aims to remind, in lines and forms and pigments that, absent patience, I’m prone to miss.
Bonus Video – Doug Burr at the Kessler Theater: 5/14/2010