Sonny Burnett: Death of an Empath

For Death of an Empath, musician Sam Ford has adopted the alias of Sonny Burnett, which in itself was the alias of James “Sonny” Crockett (played by Don Johnson) while working undercover within the Miami underworld in ‘80s TV show Miami Vice. These are worlds within worlds, but Death of an Empath seems far away from the Miami Vice approved colours of pink, peach and fuchsia. Made solo in a home studio, this is more like the black and white of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska – direct, sparse, troubled, unsettling.

The comparison to Nebraska may seem unsuitable when Death of an Empath is mostly an “electronic” album (and flattering when Ford himself is a Springsteen fan, with an industrial-sounding cover of “Downbound Train” available online), but it’s not a completely worthless comparison due to the shared tone of restraint and austerity. It’s well documented that Springsteen attempted to re-record the Nebraska songs with the E Street Band (known as the “Electric Nebraska” amongst Springsteen fans), and now that we know that Springsteen is a fan of Alan Vega’s Suicide, perhaps an “Electronic Nebraska” is not beyond the realms of possibility.

At the time and also in retrospect, Nebraska seemed singularly out of step with the bright ‘80s and its’ garish optimism; we were in New Jersey, but riding with the desperate and broken in the early morning haze of a lunar landscape and radio relay towers. Death of an Empath shares a similarly distinctive environment, not so much sad as lonely; Ford’s smooth vocals are pitched at a melodic frequency particularly suited to lock-downed citizens with jagged nerves, and despite the invitation to carouse in “Meet Me at the Bar”, this album may be more therapeutic than a Quarantini due to its’ graceful beauty.

The world of Death of an Empath glistens like a glacial urban wasteland, but there is sufficient space for the listener to be pulled in as a possible third character. The songs may not always have obvious literal meanings, but there is an immediately recognisable set of signifiers for the listener – in “Driver”, we’re suddenly immersed in the sound of the car radio from the vehicle we’re travelling in; the melancholic “Happy Song (interlude)” with its’ catchy vocal bop is interrupted by the unexpected modernism of a recorded message dealing with the horrors of Social Security, and Ford closing by cooing over a vamping piano in a spoken word voicemail to a potential lover, then abruptly cut off.

Perhaps this may seem just like clever experimentation, tricks of a sonic magician, but it is in fact vital detail which builds a distinctive vision of some substance. “If It Gets You Through The Day” makes dramatic use of sampling to create tension between the old and the new, with Ford’s vocal gliding over the top; the round of applause on the synth heavy “I Don’t Wanna Be Free” and the abstract female voice on “Baby, Don’t Mourn Too Long” emphasise alienation and intensify the pull towards human warmth.

As some of the song titles may suggest, there is a quietly anthemic nature to many of the subliminally catchy tracks, with Ford addressing his listeners through the characters. The austere “First Song, Last Song” implores us to “keep it alive”; “RU” asks the question of whether a friendship is real; the duelling vocal of “Steps” insists we’ll be met “out there”. We’re asked to “Meet Me at the Bar”, and in the small town desperation of “Anytown”, Ford calls for “everything you’ve got”. These are demanding, Springsteen-like calls to action familiar to rock fans, updated for the digital age.

The title of the album, Death of an Empath, points to the era of Trump, and popular discourse about what it means to have empathy (or a total lack of it); according to Ford it relates to his attempts to understand “how and why Americans make the choices they make, say the things they say, choose to forget and forget to remember.” The album is therefore meditative as it tries to get to grips with the emotional drivers behind the political choice that had been made; the blind adulation witnessed for the orange-coloured leader is used as a trigger for Ford to tunnel into obsessive love in the minimalist “Red Hat Blues”.

Ford further says that these songs attempt to “reach out to people and places that might have their backs turned”, and there is a sense overall, as for Nebraska, that these are songs concerned with the disenfranchised and life in the margins – the outsiders’ companionship of “Shrines”, the cool city shuffle of “Golden”, and the grand theft auto of “Meet Me at the Bar”.

Ford has some form as an actor, and Death of an Empath is undoubtedly dramatic, a trippy, adventurous experience into another world; his singing is often exceptional – this is someone who clearly believes in the music, and that belief is soaked into the performances on the album. Distinctively original, and slicker than Crockett and Tubb’s linen suits, Death of an Empath is an engaging and convincing long player.


Release Date: 01 DEC 2020