First Impressions: boxes by burwell

Singer-songwriter burwell’s five-song Boxes EP is an artful treatise on love, death and the grieving process that was inspired by the death of her mother in 2020. The electronica-pop production is lush yet never gauzy, somewhat akin to stepping inside a lucid dream, while her vocals veer from restrained to heartfelt. Lyrically, she and her cowriters eschew platitudes for specificity, painting relatable scenes throughout. (As my favorite poetry professor reminded me time and again way back when, the key to transcending greeting-card vapidity in verse is by honing in on the details. In other words, to quote him verbatim, “don’t state, create!”)

I dove deep into the opening track, “anywhere but here,” upon its release in January; it’s a moving meditation about life lessons she learned as a young girl from her mom—and how they both stuck and veered away from them when her mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. From what I’ve read, “Hold Me, Still”—which was cowritten with Bede Benjamin-Korporaal—is an older song, but it’s one that artfully fits the theme, as it could well be about grieving: “I don’t have the time/for this unraveling/I can feel the weight/of all I’ve been ignoring.” The rush and crush of life is such that we often feel compelled to push onward when what’s really needed is to remain stationary. In burwell’s case, such moments enable her to feel His embrace.

The title track, which was cowritten with Bejamin-Korporaal and Calah Mikal, tackles a mundane task many face following the death of a loved one: Going through their stuff and deciding what to do with it. Often, at first, it’s a job that’s dreaded and, as such, put off, as she relates in the first lines: “There’s a mess of cardboard memories/behind the door, I’ve shut them out.” But, like it or not, it’s a task that eventually needs to be done—and, once it’s undertaken, often turns out to be surprisingly worthwhile. Memories surface. Tears are shed, But so, too, are smiles and laughter. In burwell’s case, the process including finding her mom’s gardening tools, which then become a metaphor for something more: “Found the tools/she used for gardening/I’ll make a garden of my own/maybe it will help me grow.” The penultimate track, “In the Dark,” delves into the role faith plays in an otherwise uncertain life, while the powerful “Whole Again” delves into how embracing grief enables us to move past it.

As I said above, boxes is an artful treatise on an oft-ignored topic. The religious threads that run through the fabric of the songs may seem off-putting to those who eschew such beliefs, I’m sure, but even non-believers should hear much to like within these five tracks; they’re catharsis set to song, in a sense. They’re also an authentic representation of an experience everyone, no matter their station in life, will face (if they haven’t already). If you listen to one new release this week, make it this one.

(This interview sheds more light on burwell, aka Whitney Asher.)

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