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To get to this new alchemy of soul, dub, and more than a little punk, Burt returned to the basics—self-recording in sequestered silence. During a Canadian tour, he set aside a few days to stay in a friend’s spare apartment and write, renting enough instruments from the affordable gear emporium Long & McQuade to build a makeshift studio for his GarageBand demos. The title track soon emerged, its effortless magnetism prompted by a poem he’d written about stupid city congestion and a piece by saxophonist and singer Gary Bartz.
Burt recognized he had found the sound of the next album, so he booked another rural cabin in Canada for 9 days and rented more guitars, basses, and the same keyboard he’d bought during the You, Yeah, You sessions. For the better part of a lifetime, Burt had told himself he didn’t have the chops to sing like those childhood heroes from the Cadillac days. But now, as he built his one-man-band demos before returning to Nashville’s The Bomb Shelter to work with a trusted band of pals and esteemed producer Andrija Tokic, his versions of those sounds poured out in circumspect love songs and joyous tunes of existential reckoning. His grandfather was dying. The world was struggling with a pandemic and the specter of a third world war. But Burt gave himself permission to have fun and be funny, to let these songs lift him and, eventually, maybe others, too.
Traffic Fiction indeed feels like a buoy amid these turbulent times, something that pulls us above the wreckage. The love-or-something-like-it songs are crucial. With its rocksteady motion, rainbow keys, and slippery riff, “Wings for a Butterfly” is Burt’s honeyed plea to at least try a relationship out. Like The Beatles rebottled in Muscle Shoals, the brilliant “To Be a River” crescendos in a litany of all the things Burt knows he can be for someone—“your favorite word, a letter you read.” It is pure infatuation.
Even ostensible breakup songs luxuriate in the wonder of existence. “Santiago” recounts an overseas tryst that ended too soon, Burt jubilantly narrating moments of mirth and lust over go-go keyboards and a beat so simple and propulsive The Ramones would have loved it. And during “Piece of Me,” Burt turns the sting of ending it into an anthem of wishful thinking alongside sashaying organs and rail-grinding guitar. Maybe one more chance is all he needs? “You like me better when I’m in pain,” he sings slyly. “Well, baby, just look at me now.” Amid these warped jewels of psychedelic soul, you’ll find yourself pulling for Burt, hoping the world can come to its senses on his behalf.
Burt first earned notice for his imaginative and trenchant social protest songs, where he’d capture some corrosive element of American life—unchecked capitalism, unwavering racism, so on—in a compelling snapshot. Traffic Fiction isn’t that kind of album, necessarily, though his defiance hasn’t disappeared. Referencing his ancestral homeland of Promised Land, South Carolina, “All Things Right” scorns apathy and bureaucracy, the way we strand each other via our own pursuits. “I’ll never be free/but I can pretend,” he snaps with verve during the verse of “Kids in the Yard,” a mighty theme of self-empowerment. Burt finds the joy even here, pushing past problems rather than succumbing to obstacles.
And isn’t that a crucial role of music, especially now—to show us how to handle our burdens with aplomb and vision, to model the behavior of persevering with élan? At three points during Traffic Fiction, Burt interweaves bits of those recorded conversations with his late grandfather, Tommy. They talk about Stevie Wonder, Burt’s career and the fatigue it can bring, and, finally, the sense that he’s carrying on a family tradition through these records. It’s a reminder not only of what Burt experienced while making Traffic Fiction but also of what he overcame. He found strength in the soul of his youth, and, for that, he’s never sounded stronger.