Paul Burch: “Still Your Man”
Whatever the reason– be it a function of postmodernity, or simply a result of an increasingly fractured music industry– genre has an object of ever-burgeoning, or at least awareness, within most any circles of music critics or fans. The music that stirs the most excitement, it seems, is that which blends the most distinct genres most seamlessly, or that plays with stylistic conventions most cleverly. Or perhaps that’s just the easiest way to talk about it: Genre signifiers act as convenient shorthand for discussing music that has its foots in several different camps at once, or none at all.
Paul Burch does us all one better. He’s not a hipster, but a romantic; not a postmodernist, but someone out of time altogether. Since the late 1990s, he’s been making albums that are hopelessly likable and tragically underheard, music charming enough to win over the most jaded of listeners but modest enough that’s perennially drowned out by the flashier stuff. But Burch remains a true original, and the triumphant title of his seventh album, Still Your Man, serves as a fine self-review: His gifts have been steadfast and true, and his new collection delivers on a decade’s worth of promise– it’s an album that tops anything he’s ever done without veering too far from the rest of his canon.
He still sounds like a man without an era: A honky-tonker who loves rhythm and blues, a parlor crooner with rockabilly swagger, a bluesman who knows how to rumba. Everything on Still Your Man sounds like it could have been written before the Beatles, and yet the recordings are so intimate and the writing so organic that it doesn’t sound like a museum piece, either: It’s a thoroughly modern record made without regard for what being “modern” might actually mean. And it is, from top to bottom, a delight– the kind of album that I wouldn’t recommend to fans of a particular genre, but simply to anyone who appreciates great singing and songwriting, no matter what guise it comes in.
Burch is a honey-voiced crooner with an uncanny knack for separating sincerity from sentimentality: He eschews irony and forsakes cleverness, but his earnestness feels tough and lived-in, the product of someone who’s loved and lost but still ultimately believes in the power of romance. And that’s sort of what Still Your Man is about– romance and devotion at various stages, love in its many forms.
The songs sound impossibly timeless, and their simplicity is profound: The way Burch moves from the knowing, wizened love of “Like a Train” to the fluttering buzz of early infatuation in “Little Bells” defines effortlessness and grace. “Honey Blue” is a simple love ditty that your great-grandparents might have danced to– assuming your great-grandparents picked up Latin stations on their radio– and “Still Your Man” mines the history of lovers, both real and literary, for humor and insight. But in a way, Burch tricks us with songs like these: After luring us in with songs of such simple elegance and easy delights, he moves into material that’s a bit weightier, such as the standout “Ballad of Henry & Jimmy,” a storytelling marvel that doesn’t recall Dylan so much as the balladeers who inspired him, caressing on gender and cultural manners but focusing, as ever, on love and romance.
By the way, I love that the woman Burch is dancing with on the album cover is not a supermodel– she’s lovely, without question, but she also looks like a real person. It’s fitting, for an album as unconcerned with artifice as this one is. Still Your Man is the work of an artist marked by the greatest humility, as everything here is in service of the song, not the ego. The album was recorded live in the studio, and everything is warm and intimate; the writing, meanwhile, is often very funny and at times clever, but only when cleverness is called for. More than anything, it’s reverent toward its subject and respectful of its listener, speaking of love in adoring terms but not sentimentalizing it. “Vena Amore” speaks of loneliness, but does so with romantic hopefulness. “Lead Me On,” meanwhile, is a simply stunning declaration of devotion– of a love that burns bright and true in spite of, but not in ignorance of, hardship and uncertainty.
Some will say that music like this is antiquated, or worse, that it’s retro, but no: Burch isn’t peddling nostalgia for some hypothetical Golden Age of music, he’s simply making great music the same way great music has always been made– with humility and passion, and everything in service of Song and Story. Great singing and songwriting do not belong to any particular era, nor will they ever go out of style. For all of Burch’s stylistic shifting, what the album ultimately proves is that all American music is essentially soul music– and that after more than a decade in the game, Burch is still our man, and he’s only now hitting his peak.