Steve Burns was a rock star long before he recorded an album. Millions of kids dressed like him, in the green striped shirt from Blue’s Clues, and bought the stuffed Steve doll with a molded-plastic head. Women all over the world wrote him gushing fan letters—mostly lonely suburban moms looking for a fantasy replacement dad for their kids, but still.
Steve himself (my former co-worker—I was a designer at Blue’s Clues, making imaginary characters and scenes he pretended to interact with every day) may have still needed convincing. So he recorded Songs for Dust Mites, a rock album for himself, about himself, and by . . . the Flaming Lips! And himself, of course. His favorite band recorded and backed him up. Talk about a manchild’s dream come true!
I’d heard some of his earlier stuff, a couple of recordings he’d made at home, which were Beck-like in spirit. Meaning the songwriting was straightforward, and almost secondary to the crafting of the recording. The same is true of the album; it’s just different people producing it—people with a very identifiable style.
The first song, “Mighty Little Man,” comes at you like a comet. After an explosion of Flaming Lips bass, the chorus blows you high off the ground with Steve’s joyous rock voice and goosebump-inducing melody. The less imaginative verses pale in comparison.
His mixed metaphors and non sequiturs can be impenetrable. In “What I Do on Saturday,” he insists “I’m just a boring example of everybody else/I threw out the old one as soon as I found something else.” The old what? The cryptic lyric hardly justifies rhyming a word with itself. Then he sees “a great big face” out of the blue. Wait. Blue? Is he recalling the pressures of being a star of children’s television? I’m grasping.
Eventually, though, “Stick Around” makes you glad you stuck around. Simple but not predictable, its phrases tumble out with natural gravity. You’ve opened a closet overstuffed with pillows and linens that fall elegantly around you and splay out on the floor in soft folds. Soon after, a plaintive trumpet lures you into an instrumental exploration of loving someone so intensely that you ache with the weight of anticipating an inevitable loss.
The wistful imagery of the title track, invoking a microscopic civilization, is more typical: You imagine Steve sitting in his apartment, making up songs for himself and the dust mites.
Steve Burns plays the Mercury Lounge on October 20.