Passing the bottle
by Erick Trickey
Something about Richard Buckner's music makes people want to drink and break things. After one Buckner show, friends of mine split a whiskey bottle with him and took him to the nearby public radio station to surprise the overnight DJ, a huge fan. Buckner gave a long 3 a.m. interview while passing the bottle around. That night, one friend, who'd just broken up with a boyfriend, went home and smashed every glass in her kitchen.
Why? It's not just that Buckner's lyrics alternate heartbreak with defiant resilience "Never tell them where it hurts" and "On nights like this, my hope returns," he sings in "Song of 27," from his second album, Devotion + Doubt (1997). It's not just the way he glances at a fragile moment, saying just enough, as in his first album's "Daisychain," when he realizes his jealous paranoia isn't paranoia: "I called you once in a fit / And your roommate slipped / She said you weren't coming back / From your day trip."
Buckner's oblique lyrics; his low, throaty voice; his restrained, tumbleweedy alt-country guitar sound; and his songs' structure create a pent-up feeling of dignity fighting inner turmoil. His best songs seem unfinished, as if he's close to a breakthrough if only the song went on for one more verse. I'm always peering through his lyrics' dark glass, hoping for a clear view if I listen again.
His debut album, Bloomed (1994), was his most direct and lovelorn. On Devotion + Doubt he slowed down, strummed softly, and whispered his lines as if he could hardly bear to sing them to breathtaking dramatic effect. With Since (1998), the drama came from rousing, optimistic, full-band bursts that broke up the quiet moments. Then he turned less accessible. His attempt to rewrite Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology poems into one epic thirty-four-minute song (The Hill, 2000) was nobly literate but difficult, and on the aptly named Impasse (2002), his
music shaded over from mysterious to obscure.
Thankfully, I saw Buckner on his current tour, and he was great. His bass-string-heavy fingerpicking patterns seemed even denser than usual, and I realized he was using a loop pedal to sample himself, then accompany himself, and then let the mesmerizing drone cycle and cycle. It drew me into his set, based heavily on his first and third albums. The occasional Impasse song and Hill snippet sounded stronger among the Since songs' determined energy. When he got to the chorus of "Blue and Wonder," the first track from his first album, it seemed as if he were rediscovering that it's okay to be clear and revealing, to break through:
| Put your arms around me |
And pull your mouth up to mine
And what's that word?
I forget sometimes
It's the one that means
The love has left your eyes
Richard Buckner plays the Ark on Wednesday, June 2.
[Originally published in June, 2004.]