Review Summary: A quiet, unsung masterpiece of modern folk/alternative country that deserves far more attention than it has garnered thus far.
Though he recorded and released this album in 2007, it was 2009 when I discovered a singer/songwriter named Doug Burr. My friend Tyler recommended On Promenade to me, and in glowing terms, explained how important it was to him personally. I trust his tastes, and decided to give the album a spin for myself. My memory of it is unusually clear. It was a slightly chilly night, and it was very late, perhaps 2:00 in the morning. Normally, when I listen to music, I listen in conjunction with some other activity; nothing requiring too much of my attention, but something to keep me busy while absorbing the sounds. This time was different. I turned off the light, so that the only illumination came from the glow of my computer screen, put on my headphones, clicked play, and leaned back in my chair. I closed my eyes and just let the music wash over me.
Forty-three minutes later, I opened my eyes. It was a surreal transition back into reality, like gradually waking from a dream. I was completely blown away, and I immediately started the album over from the beginning again. It's very rare that I have this kind of reaction. There are a great many albums that have serious personal significance for me, and that I love deeply, but I don't think I can remember any other piece of music ever affecting me so viscerally on first listen.
The roots of influence run deep. One can find elements of almost every style of traditional American music here, along with unmistakably modern ideas. Echoes of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy circa I See A Darkness can be clearly identified in Burr's melodies, lyrics, and performance style, but this album is undeniably its own entity. A blending of Southern gothic folk with alternative country and elements of shoegaze, the aesthetic of On Promenade is grounded in Burr's knock-you-flat-stunning songwriting and evocative voice. A sense of weariness and melancholy laced with unbreakable resolve echoes in the space between every note, and the sounds range from the ethereal to the apocalyptic, from the pensive to the majestic. These songs feel lived-in and worn and yet ageless, as if they've always existed, waiting in the mantle of the earth for some musician to dig deep enough to discover them. A certain faith and conviction fuels Burr's writing and performance, but his songs are separate from it despite drawing energy from it.
This is an album meant to be heard as a piece, and every element is beautifully realized and considered. The ebb and flow and cohesion of these 11 songs is absolutely flawless. Burr is clearly a musician with a keen understanding of the album as a format. Most artists use records as boxes to put songs in; Burr uses single tracks as brushstrokes, and while each is individually beautiful, the complete image is something indescribably powerful. This is not to say that On Promenade is a concept album in any traditional sense; but it has a definite intent, and Burr's sense of tone, timing and structure are matched only by his emotional expression. I find it impossible to pick out highlights or favorite tracks, because it feels somehow wrong to isolate any part of the whole from any other. Every song is a standout.
On Promenade has three distinct parts. There are four songs on either side of the album, separated by a suite of three songs that flow into one another and serve as the centerpiece of the album both literally and figuratively. How Can The Lark (My Dear Theo)'s hopeful-but-uncertain nervous energy leads directly into the dark, despairing longing of Should've Known. These two Van Gogh-themed tracks then explode into In The Garden's raw, driving, desperate cry that feels like the universe bursting and birthing itself anew. The whole album seems to play host to a recurring theme of loss, acceptance, and rebuilding amidst the ruins.
When I came to On Promenade, I was in the midst of an immense personal crisis, and I had yet to crawl out of my own mound of phoenix feather ashes. I'd gone through a loss on a scale that cut my legs out from under me for a while, and I hadn't even managed to fully assess the damage, let alone started to rebuild. Perhaps that's one reason I connected to this album so strongly and so quickly, but I think that's only one part of the picture. I've long since healed from those wounds, and yet I continue to return to On Promenade. After hundreds of spins, it's just as beautiful and brilliant and affecting with every listen.
Doug Burr is a songwriter destined to be remembered as one of the greatest, and yet he remains largely unknown. Help remedy that. Buy a copy of this album, and of its equally powerful and beautiful follow-up O Ye Devastator. Listen to the music. Tell all your friends. You won't regret it.