- Milton Busker & the Grim Work, Made of Stars
(Self released, CD, digital)
As Milton Busker watched his father slowly pass away from cancer at a respite house, he worried that he wasn't feeling anything. Doomscrolling on his phone, Busker saw a steady stream of the motivational memes that often populate social media. They made him feel less uplifted than defensive.
"The positivity can be downright oppressive," the Burlington-based singer-songwriter wrote on his web page ahead of releasing his latest LP, Made of Stars. "What if I don't want to hope for the best right now?"
Busker thought of astrophysicist Carl Sagan's oft-quoted declaration that humans are "made of star stuff." Sitting at his dying father's bedside, he found the sentiment didn't necessarily fill him with hope; rather, it inspired a grim thought.
"If we're made of stars," Busker sings on the title track, "why aren't we surrounded by a fiery glow, burning out our eyes?"
That intertwining of beauty and sadness becomes a kind of emotional thesis for the sophomore record by Busker and his band, the Grim Work. Recorded with Matthew Mercury guitarist and Busker's cousin Jeremy Mendicino at the helm, Made of Stars takes the alt-rock-leaning pop of Busker and the Grim Work's 2018 self-titled debut and homes in on the nitty-gritty.
On this record, the hooks are a little more focused, and Busker goes for more variety in his writing. For instance, the second single off the album, "Internet Famous," exists between the literate indie rock of the Shins and glossier pop terrains, showing us an increasingly slick, skillful side of Busker and his band.
A lot of that skill arises from Busker's complete trust in his band. "Imagine having access to a machine that will unfailingly make whatever you put into it better," he wrote on his web page. Featuring John Treybal on bass, David Ball on guitars, Jom Hammack on mandolin and Dave Simpson on drums, the Grim Work provide Busker with a wide platform, ranging from the power pop of "Good Guys With Guns" to the gentle beauty of the Americana ballad "My Old Friend."
What's most impressive about Made of Stars is the clear emotional theme that runs through all 12 tracks. After a few listens, it becomes clear that Busker isn't giving in to despair, even though sadness haunts songs such as "Earth and Air" like a lingering specter. Rather, he's doing the work of a proper troubadour by finding silver linings — acknowledging the power of not being alone on "Around," for instance, or fighting the darkness on "Bright Blue Days." The record covers a broad emotional range without resorting to the pithy slogans and empty axioms of pop culture memes.
Made of Stars is available on major streaming services. Milton Busker & the Grim Work celebrate the new album with a release show on Thursday, November 3, at 14th Star Brewing in St. Albans.