Todd Burge: 1986: The First Album/Your Reflection Will Kill You
At this point, West Virginia singer-songwriter Todd Burge has been making music for decades. I myself have personally seen him play in and around the Charleston area since the 1990s, including a long series of appearances on Mountain Stage. Years prior, in 1986, Burge was recording his very first record. The debut was never released, and Burge did not own the rights to it. When he finally resurfaced in 1990, his music had changed considerably.
Finally released after more than 30 years, 1986: The First Album is quite different from the Burge with which you may be familiar. Although Burge has always had a singular, unmistakable style, the influences of musicians like Woody Guthrie have been easy to see. What may come as a surprise with Burge’s first effort is just how much early Elvis Costello was hiding in the shadows. The resurrected album’s sound has the rushed urgency typical of the punk and punk-influenced bands of the early to mid-1980s. In addition to Costello, artists such as Nick Lowe or even They Might Be Giants come to mind.
The opening track of 1986: The First Album, “I’m Going Down,” sounds like a lost Dead Milkmen song. Burge gets aggro as the drums and bass work up a properly twitchy rhythm. This song kicks off the album with a satisfying mix of rock fury and angst.
Next, “Cavewoman” delivers an appropriately silly spoof of the macho caveman mentality. It’s also a high energy rave-up that carries the ironic lyrics with put-on seriousness. Burge’s band is so effective here (and elsewhere on the album) that the listener is left wondering why Burge ever chose to abandon the style.
With its Mike Watt-esque bassline, “Rapid Fire” has a downright Minutemen sound. Here, Burge’s nervous energy finally bursts at the seams, erupting with an especially strong Costello influence. Lyrically, Burge finds himself twisted up in the drama of a toxic relationship. Displaying the mark of a good songwriter, Burge still takes a moment to contemplate an olive branch despite the frustration evident in the song. With this track, he shows he was a capable writer from the start.
If the entire lost 1986 record were a hoax, the track “My Wasted Youth” would be the ironic punchline. On the other hand, the mere fact that a 20-year-old Burge wrote a song like this speaks to his lyrical gifts. Again, Burge proves himself as an imaginative and introspective writer, one with the most important gift that a writer of any sort can possess: the ability to change perspective. On “My Wasted Youth,” Burge observes his life up to that point with a degree of wisdom that is surprising in someone of that age.
“Your Punk Is Dead” may as well be a Dead Kennedys song with an especially Crass message. Burge calls out the punk orthodoxy of the 1980s for becoming little more than a style cult. His critique still holds weight today, as this sort of thinking is still common in subcultures and communities.
Especially considering how it differs from Burge’s later work, 1986: The First Album does not quite show the listener Burge as a fully formed nascent artist. It is, nonetheless, surprisingly solid and satisfying, particularly for fans of punk-adjacent 1980s music. Heavily influenced by contemporary music, Burge’s long-lost first record is more than just a time capsule curiosity: It stands well on its own and rewards repeated spins.
Your Reflection Will Kill You is a different beast. The new album’s accompaniment is careful and precise. Burge could hardly have found a better backing band in Ryan Kennedy and John Inghram, who are the gold standard when it comes to their instruments. Yet, more than merely virtuosic soloists, both Kennedy and Inghram are also deft sidemen. Their contributions only service the song and help Burge deliver stories to his audience.
“Back to the Races” is the Burge most know and love, with his signature wavering vibratro in full effect. On this album, Burge finds himself again looking at the past. The memory seems troubled but nonetheless wistful. He seems to have lost his father since childhood and is now wondering how he can carry on the race by himself. The writer’s perspective on life changes as time does its work of unraveling what seemed fixed in place.
Burge ponders ruminations of the past on the album’s title track, “Your Reflection Will Kill You.” Common fears of becoming the worst of one’s parents mix with the dangers of reliving the “faded glory” of the past. Here, Burge offers the simple but hard-won wisdom that everyone must either live in the present or not really live at all.
Burge’s vocal mannerisms are often used to highlight comic lines, but they work just as well on tracks like “That Sorry Guy from West Virginia.” In this song, Burge wrestles with a checkered past by just pretending it was someone else “who did you wrong.” Is the narrator unreliable? Burge’s tongue-in-cheek delivery makes the uncertainty amusing rather than unpalatable.
“Comic Book Sleeve” is another great example of this artist’s wit. Burge can usually be found telling stories that are broken up by musings, humor, and philosophy. Such is the case here. Burge begins by contemplating an autobiography. Through flashes of conversation, he implores someone to “Please judge me / By my cover / But love me from the inside out / Of my mind.” Burge concludes the song by resolving that he will not write down his story but still wants a “comic sleeve” to cover it. It may be too much to view this as a poignant metaphor for his entire oeuvre, but that’s how it seems to come off.
Burge’s “I’ll Never Make It Out of Here Alive” gives his take on a topic visited by everyone from Hank Williams, to the Notorious B.I.G., to David Bowie: the inevitability of death. Contradicting the subject matter, Burge picks his most happy-go-lucky accompaniment for this downright catchy song. Listening to this track, you may find yourself whistling about your own demise before you know it.
“Born Again” begins with a lament on the days that crush the spirit. However, instead of taking the Macbeth route, Burge changes the perspective taken on death to present a universal truth: We all experience deaths and losses along the way. The truth is that we often have to lose something before we can be renewed.
“Lotus Flower (Lakshmi)” is a sweet song that floats along with a somewhat Eastern sound. Evocative of the spiritual significance of the lotus flower, the song suggests renewal and peace and has a meditative quality that makes it a perfect and tranquil ending for not just the whole album, but for the last three songs in particular. This track completes the cycle of death, rebirth, and ultimate nirvana.
Burge approaches much of his work with a sly half-grin. Both 1986: The First Album and Your Reflection Will Kill You pair Burge with musicians who help him deliver laughs and pathos with aplomb. Though the latter album is by far the more polished product, 1986: The First Record has a verve and energy that makes the listener regret that it wasn’t released back when it was first recorded in the ‘80s. Regardless, both albums are absolutely worth your time.