No Human Voice: A Review of Doug Burr’s Pale White Dove

This comes to us from Matt Redmond: And I stepped out slowly between that sordid […]

Mockingbird / 5.5.15

This comes to us from Matt Redmond:

And I stepped out slowly between that sordid throng
Comin’ not a word – soundin’ like a song
While it just kept goin’, I just walked on
A song with no human voice

I don’t know where Doug Burr gets his songs from. But I would assume they come from a similar place as Flannery O’Connor’s stories. You expect Hazel Motes or The Misfit to show up any moment.

The first song I ever heard from Burr came out of nowhere. After stumbling onto a website looking for something else, I found myself listening to a podcast of Christian artists who were flying under the radar of CCM. Now, I don’t remember anything about any of the other recording artists but moments after listening to “In The Garden” I bought On Promenade, a southern Gothic gem with nary a false move. It’s a breathtaking piece of work.

In 2010, Burr released O Ye Devastator, featuring “Chief of Police in Chicago” and the best cover art I’ve ever seen. And the only way to describe the album to anyone is to show them that cover art. “It sounds like this.”

513z2nktoUL._SL500_AA280_That was five years ago. Every now and again there is a tug. I’ll pull out an album and listen. And then put it away. But rarely on repeat. I never really thought about it much till the other day. But then I asked myself after listening to Devastator, “Why do I stop after a full listen?” And why must I always listen from beginning to end?

I suppose it is fine to listen to music for entertainment. But I can hardly remember back to the days of a teenage bedroom when I did so. By the time I was 17, the music had to have something besides entertainment in it. Art and meaning? Transcendence. Some insertion of the metaphysical where the human condition grabs for friction. If there are things bigger than sex and laughs, then we damn well better sing about it all. If there is a God in  heaven then even singing against him makes more sense than the hair metal with all its soft porn videos after 8 pm.

Burr’s albums have the heaviness of a novel. That kinda weight. You don’t read Faulkner for entertainment. Some authors are too full of gravity. You don’t read them at the beach. You read them at the grave. You read Faulkner and Percy and Welty and O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy for an open door into a reality that is more real than the open window of your own home. And then you put the novel down and walk away and wash the dishes and see things a little differently, if not a lot. You sure don’t pick it up again. You catch your breath for a while.

The highlight of Pale White Dove, Burr’s newest album, is “No Human Voice.” Whether it’s the trajectory of my own life or the design of the songs, the album swings on the greased bolt of this one track. It’s the quietest one of the whole thing. Not the softest but the one that sounds the most like the moon in the dark of night. It sounds like resignation to hands beyond our own seeing. The story will ring true for those whose lives have sat on the edge where every movement had the force of the hand of God behind the slightest. Where nothing is capricious anymore. There is a higher song beyond every sound.

You will crank the first song, “White Night/Black Light” beyond your speaker’s limits. The Ryan Adams-esque “Never Gonna Be Young Again” will stay with you for days on end. And the distortion and echoes and chords of blue all way through “When the Arrow Hits the Sparrow” will rattle you. It’s not easy listening. There is a violence in the sound. And in the the lyrics what sounds like a frustration with the same violence. Burr’s early albums sounded like Texas’ wide open spaces. Pale White Dove sounds like a crumbling brick industrial plant where blood has been spilled. You can hear the crash of duct work and breaking of glass and the echoes of buzz-sawing machinery. And by the end, the soft footfalls of a witness to God only knows what, in “The Last Confederate Widow.”

Back in 2008, Burr released The Shawl, a collection of fresh settings for various Psalms. Pure Americana, too. It’s a muted yet anchored work of ancient blues. Resolute and word-for-word, it’s primary value is how he let the text do the work. The music is secondary but still forceful.

The Shawl is the album I think about most when I listen to Pale White Dove. Not because they are similar but because they are so incredibly different.

I have this theory. We’ve needle-pointed and Thomas-Kinkaded the Psalms so much that we’ve missed the blood and guts therein. We’ve turned them into cliches and cute sayings worthy of Osteen when they were initially sung by people surrounded by their enemies. These were the songs sung by voices well-acquainted with violence and death and threat and sacrifice.

The last lines of the new album are:

Sing me the name of the Last Confederate Widow
The windows are open, all the daughters are leanin’
The windin’ white road, and the long black Lincoln
The Secret South all down in the mouth, and caught in her throat
In the place that you love the most

When I listen to Pale White Dove on my computer, The Shawl follows immediately. And really, that’s the best way to listen to Burr’s new album. Because the opening words of The Shawl answer those final lines of “The Last Confederate Widow” with affecting beauty and deep poetry:

Return, O Lord, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Thy loving kindness.
For there is no mention of Thee in death;
In Sheol who will give Thee thanks?

I am weary with my sighing;
Every night I make my bed swim,
I dissolve my couch with my tears.
My eye has wasted away with grief;
It has become old because of all my adversaries.

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