At a fraught and anxiety ridden juncture like 2020, nothing soothes the nostalgic soul like a revisit to the vibe of the synth-happy 80s. Fortunately, Lafayette, Louisiana based musical chameleon J Burton’s quarter century journey puts him in that place. Rebranded as Grand Nathaniel, on At The Lagoon he draws powerfully on the lively sonic symphonics of that era while but pushing it forward with deeper introspection, rhythmic variation and edgier gravitas.
Charting that evolution is fascinating, as peppy mid-tempo bursts of joy like the synth brass fired “Sunday Drivin” and bouncy, synth-funk opener “Wide Eyed” take the multi-talented singer/songwriter far in style and scope from his early work with his folk-rock group Dire Wood. Burton laid the foundation for Grand Nathaniel and the Ghosts and his current incarnation by turning to upbeat synth-pop with FIGHTs and later the trio Talker.
It’s fascinating that the powers that be chose the hypnotic, slow simmering and wistful “Nightbird” as the collection’s lead single and video. Although the track – along with the other languid seduction “Stronger” - draws us into the deeper soul of his vocal artistry, its general downtempo-ness is only part of the story we hear as we hang lagoon-side in anticipation.
Joining the aforementioned “Wide Eyed” in showcasing Burton’s buoyant energy are the trippy, lighthearted synth swinger “Ladybug,” the propulsive reverence of a much admired self-made “Radioman” and the insanely hooky “Penny in the Wall,” which pulls us along to its wide eyed, uber-romantic anthem-like chorus “Then I’ll take it to the river when the lilies are in bloom/I’ll spend it on a wish and then I’ll dream all day of you…” Burton’s extensive history has often cast him as an artist who seems most at home as a pessimist most at home on the darker edges of creative and real life.
Songs like “Penny in the Wall” and the deeply spiritual, sonically and lyrically transcendent “Come Back” find him injecting much-appreciated hope into the mix – and of course we need that blend of nostalgia and forward thinking optimism now like never before.