Richard Buckner has long haunted the periphery of the American alternative country scene. ‘Haunted’ is an apt term, not just for the way his presence has drifted in and out of the mainstream’s focus, tangible only for the lucky few who caught a glimpse of him before he faded back into the shadows, but also because his music is singularly introverted, a vision of Americana far removed from the “open road” or “barroom” archetypes of the genre, existing more in the dusty back roads and abandoned trailer parks of the mind’s eye. 2002’s Impasse, for example, was a desperate stream-of-consciousness ramble over repeated motifs and world-weary musings, Buckner coming across as a defeated, lovelorn balladeer playing to an audience that wasn’t there, or that wasn’t paying attention if it was.
And time hasn’t been kind to Richard Buckner, at least in terms of recognition, and this latest album, Our Blood, almost didn’t see the light of day, as various recordings were lost and stolen, which, added to legal wrangling, meant that it’s been close to 6 years in the making. Buckner understandably sounds even more weary than usual on Our Blood, his deep, gravelly voice shaking and trembling as he utters the first lines of heart-tugging opener ‘Traitor’: “You woke up too late, but know what they thought while you were waiting for the strangers that had gone somewhere to stay together/apart, where everyone traded as they faded in the dark”. It’s hard to discern whether Buckner feels betrayed by outside forces, or by his own, trusting, nature. Despite the angst in the lyrics, the track is one of the album’s most driving ones, as loping percussion accompanies the singer’s fuzzed-out guitar and elegant Wurlitzer lines, the latter a particularly welcome and emotive addition to Buckner’s sound palette.
Still, the weariness and melancholy never diminishes, and, as the song draws to a close, his voice is almost reduced to a sigh, as he mutters “O, watch that temper, now / Is it worth it, wasted? / How far will you get?” before pitching the track into a tortured instrumental break. ‘Traitor’ could easily be Buckner’s best-ever track, expertly balancing the raw aggression of his electric guitar sound with the abject bleakness of his vision and emotions. As Buckner mentions on his website, Our Blood is about wasted time and wasted emotions, of making plans that suddenly no longer seem relevant or viable, and then hovering, undecided, in front of an unsure future. It’s an unsettling and intense worldview, and one that could apply on so many levels, from the creation of an album such as Our Blood to the everyday challenges of life.
The one flaw Our Blood has is its brevity. At only 9 tracks and 37 minutes, it’s over rather quick, and you do feel some pieces, such as the hesitant, shimmering ‘Thief’, or the elusive instrumental ‘Ponder’ (how apt that it should be wordless), could have been drawn out, elaborated on, with maybe more freedom given to the guitar, which is at all times kept on a tight leash. Then again, this sense of the incomplete, of the deliberately restrained and elusive, adds tension to what could otherwise have seemed maudlin, self-indulgent fare. Buckner’s mastery of emotion and composition, which I have at times doubted, is crystal clear on tracks like ‘Hindsight’ and ‘Collusion’, the latter edging hesitantly along, the chiming piano notes and sparse acoustic guitar swirling around Buckner’s voice and hesitant e-bowed drone. “There was a chance you took / That everything was good” he croons, before launching into a series of increasingly despondent descriptions: “Holding out your hand”; “Crossing all those lines”; “Slipping from your skin”; “Wearing thin”. As the song slips into a troubled instrumental final third, he returns full circle with a pleaded exhortation: “Remember that chance you took”. It’s haunting stuff.
With Our Blood, Richard Buckner would, in a fair world, be finally allowed into the pantheon of alt-country greats, hailed with the same fervour reserved for the likes of The Jayhawks or Son Volt. His words carry a rich, elliptical and haunting poetry, and, despite the presence of Bob Dylan alumnus Buddy Cage providing slide on three tracks and Sonic Youth’s Steve Shelley on ‘Collusion’, this is very much a solo work, a deep and meaningful insight into one man’s heart and soul. The heart and soul of a survivor – as that final exhortation on ‘Collusion’ indicates, this may be an album of deep, dark recesses, but it’s also suffused with hope, or at the very least a stubborn refusal to fade in the face of misfortune. Long may this struggle continue, if the results are this moving.
You can also read this review here: http://www.theliminal.co.uk/2011/09/richard-buckner-our-blood/