Richard Bucker

Meadow

(Merge; 2006)

By Kate Steele | 6 October 2006

I started listening to Meadow the same time I heard Dylan's already-classic Modern Times, about five weeks ago. Five weeks of concentrated listening time is generally more than enough for me to get a clear gauge on a record, but Meadow's a dense album, and while I soldiered on, Dylan kept distracting me. The truth is, Modern Times, with its straightforward narratives and booty-swinging antics, is just a more accessible and immediately rewarding record. But then who would be expecting accessibility and immediate rewards from a Richard Buckner album?

No one who’s listened to his last three releases, anyway. All of Buckner's work beyond Since (1998), and even a few tracks on that album, has been concerned with deconstructing the conventional song structure and has challenged listeners to make something of the re-assembled parts. Whether or not Buckner’s shift toward abstraction was a result of being slotted in the alt-country genre for his major-label romp, Devotion and Doubt (1997), it's clear that he isn't interested in being defined by genre, or the "singer-songwriter" thing.

On Meadow, Buckner's penchant for deconstruction/reconstruction can be heard in the song's arrangements and also in the lyrics. Many tracks begin at what seem like midway points, and others float off unexpectedly into the uncertain distance. Even "Before," one of the album's most structurally and lyrically straightforward tracks, ends on an unresolved major fourth with the perplexing lyrics "A meadow rise / to spend all / your time with." There is a sense of fragmentation in all aspects of the album, and is immediately evident in the song titles, all single words, except for the last track "The Tether and The Tie." His fragmented lyrical style works best on songs like "Kingdom" and "Mile" where the accompaniment is smoother and Buckner's phrasing less choppy and deliberate. Songs like "Town" and "Lucky" suffer from lyrics and delivery that give equal weight to each line and come off as disconnected quips rather than reflections that culminate in any coherent whole.

Buckner's always enjoyed playing with language, and chooses lyrics as much for their sonic value as for any meaning they might convey. When he can't find the word he wants, he makes one up. On Devotion and Doubt, Buckner addresses his songs’ subjects as “another little shover” and “you throaty fare.” In “Mile” there are echoes of DAD’s “’Lil Wallet Picture” in the guitar line and in the lyrics “tindertorn, spread against.”

Buckner’s lyrics, with their attention to rhyme, assonance and alliteration, are poetic, but have a way of taking on meaning within the songs they wouldn’t necessarily hold as poetry. At their best, and with the help of GBV guitarist Doug Gillard, drummer Kevin March and producer J.D. Foster, Buckner’s obscure lyrics contribute to making the songs on Meadow add up to much more than just the sum of their parts. An example of this is “Kingdom,” where the most concrete and evocative lyrics come where the harmonies swell at the song’s climax: “Downtown letdown / At the bottom of the lights / Sway back, although / It’s just too far / The way we are.” When these are among the most concrete lyrics on an album, though, you can see where the listener interested in piecing together some sort of narrative might get frustrated. It’s hard to feel on a few tracks that something hasn’t been lost through Buckner’s shift to more abstract songwriting. As much as I enjoy listening to “Town,” these lyrics don’t add up for me: "Is that a staggered slow / clean and safe? / Just another fire / to path away.”

What’s always been most compelling about Buckner is the tension between vulnerability and ferocity in his songs. Though they may sound like tender love songs on the surface, an undefined malice often lurks beneath. At moments husky and unrelenting, then warm and gentle, not many voices can convey hurt and regret in the raw, scratch-it-till-it-bleeds manner that Buckner's can.

None of this has changed on Meadow. Increasingly abstract or not, Richard Buckner’s a great songwriter. It’s good to hear he’s still challenging himself.