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Tré Burt was standing on a stage in Philadelphia in early 2023 when the latest bit of bad news arrived: His grandfather, a native of that very city, was dead. It wasn’t entirely unexpected. For years, Tommy Burt had struggled with early-onset dementia, slipping away a bit more each time Burt saw him. Burt even began recording his grandfather, letting his tape recorder roll as they had some of their final conversations. He wanted to preserve those moments, however repetitious or fragmented they might be, before the opportunity vanished forever. In fact, Traffic Fiction—Burt’s third album on Oh Boy Records and an unexpected musical reinvention rooted in his new and idiosyncratic version of classic soul—also preserves their relationship by committing another key piece of it to tape. The soul that animates so many of these 14 tracks? That was the music shared by grandfather and grandson.
Burt’s California childhood was not easy. His parents split when he was young, so he would often shuttle between their houses in Sacramento and the Bay Area. He was a bit of a wild child, too. From time to time, though, he would accompany his father to work at a plant nursery, riding shotgun in a 1975 Cadillac Seville as they listened to The Delfonics and Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. Those drives were his sanctuary, that music their blessed score.
But as Burt became a musician himself, he was a peripatetic troubadour, tapping into American folk and blues partly as a matter of necessity—it’s not sensible to busk, after all, with some sophisticated band at your back. Bits of those other roots and compositional ambitions finally emerged on 2021’s You, Yeah, You, the vivid result of Burt’s first proper studio sessions. On Traffic Fiction, they are in full bloom, from the sweet country-soul surrealism of the title track to the skywriting rock of “2 For Tha Show,” Burt as urgent and commanding as he’s ever been. Traffic Fiction is the sound of Burt confidently bending a sentimental past to his present will.
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.