Richard Buckner plays the Mercury Lounge tonight, Dec 12 at around 9:30. His most recent album, Our Blood features Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on drums on several tracks along with distantly resonant pedal steel from Buddy Cage of the New Riders of the Purple Sage. It’s not known if either will be on the bill tonight but whatever the case, Buckner has never written or sung better than he did on this album, which came out midsummer 2011. Vocally, in recent years he’s gone deeper into his lower register, his hooks have never been more resonant and his lyrics are creepier than ever. This one’s an audio film noir with country/folk and indie touches. What happenedin the storyline here is never clear, and whether the unspecified crime in question is real or simply metaphorical is up to the listener to figure out. Buckner has always one of the more interesting, literarily-inclined songwriters out there, and here his narrator addresses each of these songs to the perpetrator, to whom he may or may not be related, by marriage or otherwise.
Buckner is good at suites – his 2000 album The Hill took Edgar Lee Masters’ caustic Spoon River Anthology and set it to growling electric rock. This album veers between catchy janglerock that Buckner frequently takes into atmospheric, Stereolab-ish territory through an endless supply of vintage keyboard patches, with touches of the meandering, folk-flavored acoustic sounds of his early years.
The narrative doesn’t follow a clear trajectory, deepening the mystery. The first track, Traitor, makes its way from insistently jangly to broodingly carnivalesque, with a long, hypnotic outro, one of a couple clear references to The Hill here. As it turns out, someone is coming “to laugh, to make you finally live it down,” whatever that may be. Track two, Escape implicates the narrator in this – at least as far as encouraging the perp to get the hell out while there’s still time. As usual, there are multiple levels of meaning here: with its noirish Rhodes ambience, the song is equally resonant as a cautionary tale for anyone wanting to leave it all behind.
Over some hauntingly ominous changes, Thief alludes to a relationship gone wrong; Buckner adding a spaghetti western feel with elegantly minimalist baritone guitar. Collusion sets the album’s most harrowingly surreal lyric over nebulous, sustained sheets of ebow guitar and keening synth: “You hear them sing the distant songs with familiar rings, luring you out until you could remember the chance you took.”
After Ponder, a lusciously Lynchian instrumental, Witness veers between the indie ambiguity of the Clean and Matt Keating-esque Americana. “How could we have been surprised by things that only we knew, waiting though you couldn’t stay, keeping little ones away,” Buckner muses.
“I guess I’m the one they warned you about,” he tells his accomplice on the most folk-flavored track, Confession: maybe the narrator is the traitor here! Hindsight goes back to insistently rhythmic indie rock spiced with echoey Rhodes, drenched in regret:
Did you hear it in the wind?
I couldn’t make it down
Cloudy in the light…
Folded in a letter that I found
Remembered just in time
Forgetting to forgive
Never turning back around
The album ends on an enigmatically chilling note with Gang, organ pulsing ominously beneath the torrent of images: someone might be about to be executed, metaphorically at least. Adding to the intrigue is Buckner’s casual delivery, although he doesn’t let his lyrics trail off like he used to, a trait that could be maddening. The only maddening thing about this album is that it isn’t better known (full disclosure: this came over the transom here just as this blog was first born, when all the rock stuff was being transferred over from NYMD’s sister blog and in the process got lost in the shuffle. Therefore, this attempt to make things right.).