The Unraveling Sound of Richard Buckner
Since, MCA Recordings, 1998
The Hill, Overcoat Reordings, 2000
Impasse , Overcoat Recordings, 2002
Meadow, Merge, 2006
Thesis: You can’t hold a thing at the level of disarray you like best.
That sense of young adulthood–which is about striving and getting seriously wrecked for the first times and never-feeling-quite-there-yet, resides, for many of us, in our twenties. And if this is true, then it’s no surprise that the music of Richard Buckner grabbed ahold of and destroyed me again and again that decade. But, pulling out old cds this week and listening to them again, I felt more drawn to the enormous loss that permeates every note on Buckner’s albums.
I. The Ode.
Richard Buckner’s voice is a clear baritone with crackly edges that’s easy to sing along to one octave up. His chord progressions are idiosyncratically his. His sound is sort of a ragged—dare-I-say-it—Americana. What so many artists, it seems, try to be, his sound just is: Music writers have gotten in the habit of late of saying that certain performers sound like they’ve crawled out of an Edgar Lee Masters poem or an early 20th-century piece of woodwork, but with the best Buckner songs, you can check the Shaker joints, and they’re solid. They’re good, while so many new upstarts sound a bit pasteboard to me. If you want to feel haunted by ghosts, check out The Hill, one of Buckner’s best, an album in which he sets Masters’ Spoon River Anthology to music. The thing about Richard Buckner though, is that he’s not, by any stretch, trying to be old-timey. His songs, even those with electric guitars, just sound deep and rough. Singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards is a fan of his; they toured together once, and I hear traces of him in her early work, too: in the drive, the weariness, the casual/heartbreaking delivery of disappointing truths.
In Buckner’s work, there’s a lot about lack of satisfaction too, but in his best songs, it’s highlighted and sometimes underscored by these silvery flecks of light as the narrator is felled by the beauty of a moment or a woman or a dream. His songs, as well as their tone and their aesthetic to my mind, are all very Nothing gold can stay. The beloved shines for just a moment in the mind’s eye of the listener even as the nature of the vision is never exactly clear—as his lyrics, in his prime, were so weird, so sparse, so abstract; these songs tend to end abruptly, as if they’re fed up or know when to cut and run, or they’ve just run plum out of steam all at once.
Once I interviewed him for the arts section of Wilmington, North Carolina’s newspaper. He said to me, “I hate little crafty songs: verse, chorus, verse, you know: ‘Here comes that train again.’ I want a nice surprise. I want to hear something new.” Still, for all its little surprises, his best music is also tuneful and hella-cathartic, if not catchy in the pop sense. It sticks with you. Or with me, at least.
a Showboat Motel, Casper night. The river’s high and losing/
I’ll watch her flaming figure fly & burn on out at your ruins
as Felt belts out a warning of some Spanish house I’ve known; cut to the bone: quick to the que.
-from “Ocean Cliff Clearing” Richard Buckner, Since
The same cannot be said of his lyrics. I realized again the other day how, although I can sit here and hum every single note of Richard Buckner’s seminal album, Since, I can’t sing a single one of its songs from start to finish. They are all so melodic that they beguile me into forgetting that I don’t really know them, not the way I imagine I do, even as I’m listening, and by now, that’s been dozens and dozens of times. I fancy Buckner’s music to be my companion, but although I need it from time to time, I’ve never owned it completely: I’ll be on a road trip and put on Since or Impasse and try to sing along anyway, the sound turned up so loud I don’t notice how often I’m going, “Dahhhhh-dahh-dahhhm,” over top of some charging or wistful melody.
II. The Shows.
Here’s another mystery: The first time I saw him play, I didn’t know and still don’t know what on earth he was doing there. Why play a show in Wilmington, North Carolina? Nobody came to Wilmington. It’s a coastal town three hours from anywhere across swampy scrublands. (Chapel Hill way to the west, and Myrtle Beach way to the south are the nearest towns.) The small club that hosted him did very little to advertise his show. I’d simply seen his name in a flyer a month before and begged my editor to do the story. The crowd there that night was small. After he played, he got up and walked back through the crowd, acknowledging no one, out into the night, and was gone. It made no sense.
I had napped right up until show time, through the opener and everything. I remember getting up, turning off the window unit and its liquid slosh when I did, the aftersmell of Freon. Walking through my darkened efficiency apartment, down the carpeted, padded steps, outside into the muggy dark of the summer, alone, always alone that summer. Richard Buckner didn’t mean what it once had to me. Since had once meant the big troubled Us of a former relationship, but by then, the relationship was a memory and the album’s music had come to be mine alone. No one I came into contact anymore knew it or him.
Buckner was touring for an album three albums later; it was okay and I found myself listening to it lots in that old efficiency, or driving to or from the grocery store or the beach, gearing myself up for the phone interview my editor had approved. I had been nervous that Buckner would be harsh on the phone since he had a rep for bitterness after a storied conflict with RCA, which recorded Since, that beautiful album, then promptly swept it under the rug. During our phone conversation, he was firm and decisive, but not rude. This—interviews with arts papers—was just part of the job, just like touring. He did both out of simple duty.
The muddy flat river smell rising up through the old streets as I walked down to the club and bought a Newcastle, chatted with my editor from the paper, then stood alone with my second beer and drunkenly listened, listing as Buckner played, as he paid no one in the sparse crowd any attention. I was just drunk enough and he was good enough that it was religious for me. The North Carolina show was one long song, a legato stream of the tunes I knew, played without pause and largely without acknowledgement of the audience—but I could recognize the songs; and I walked home that night from that small town show, satisfied.
III. The Ruin.
But as time went on, so did the entropy of Richard Buckner’s sound, and two years later, in Atlanta, things had changed. By then, he had morphed the renditions of what he played into one, long, shambling thing interjected with muttered, unintelligible lyrics and some looping synth or other. Standing there in the slurry of sound, I felt annoyed and yes, bored. The performance reminded me one of those houses whose inhabitants keep building rooms without regard to building codes, appearance, or comfort. I’d had the tunes of his songs to cling to and care about, and now those tunes were gone and only the cryptic play of words, muttered at will, remained.
The songs I had once known or at least had been able to pick out were just gone—had fallen far past any resemblance. His voice now, too, was such a vague mutter now, and his disregard of the small crowd of mostly middle-aged men was so complete that it occurred to me that we were an annoyance to him. “A way to pay the bills,” he’d told me in the phone interview back in North Carolina. Now, as in that state, he finished the show and left the room with just a small nod to those of us who stood there.
You can hear the endings in the beginnings if you listen hard enough, and Buckner’s earliest album, Bloomed, is mostly standard, unsurprising alt country, but its lyrics already suggest the bright spark and autumnal ruin that would characterize his later work. His last album, by contrast, features lyrics so sparse that each line seems a placeholder for some entire chapter left undrawn; to me as a listener, it’s too sketchy. Truthfully, I can’t get much from it.
So I stick to those middle albums, the ones that contained that interplay of wreckage and light, of bitterness and hope. It’s this balance of these elements that made them beautiful, not-quite-scrutable lyrics and all. As I said earlier, these were albums originally paired with a relationship I had in my twenties that often felt about to keel right off its own rockers, too. It was my first crushing blow when it finally did. I couldn’t hold it together.
But when I listen now, I am incapable of feeling much about that time anymore except a faint wistfulness. I listen for the music itself, and that wreckage/light, bitterness/hope thing that beats with every note.
What disheartens me with the man today is that it’s the former of both pairings that seem to have won out. And I don’t know that things could have turned out any differently. Now when I listen, sometimes, I just hear sadness. But I can’t stop listening.