I first saw Richard Buckner perform a decade ago, at the now-defunct Nita’s Hideaway in Tempe, Ariz. Call it an intimate performance, or call it a half empty room; Buckner hadn’t really made a name for himself yet in Arizona. I was seated at a small table. I could’ve put my feet on the stage if I’d leaned back in my chair. Buckner was touring with a pedal steel guitarist. This was already three fantastic albums into his career, so I guess the acquired taste tag had already been placed on the deep-voiced, brooding singer.
Despite the pedal steel player and the twang that bended the edges of his voice, Buckner was already well in transition away from the alt.country rock he’d landed on with Bloomed, his 1995 debut. In five subsequent shows, I watched as Buckner’s live act transitioned into a loop-based sound. He’d play different guitar parts live and then layer one on top of another, creating a circular effect, the different elements distinct for a time, but melding together as he continued to play.
Our Blood, Buckner’s first album in five years, is built that same way, for the first time reflecting on record that looping quality that he’s refined on stage. As such, it’s a hard album to fit with a rock, country or folk tag. As a lyricist and vocalist, Buckner retains his veiled and mysterious narrative power. But musically, he’s developed an atmospheric, film-score type of sound, far removed from the traditional country-folk leanings of his Lloyd Maines-assisted debut.
That Our Blood diverges at times so starkly from Buckner’s recorded precedent is hardly a surprise. The album had a long and troubled road to travel. Merge Records’ press release takes the form of a letter from Buckner, describing a twice-broken Roland 2480 recorder, a stolen laptop and the failure of a self-imposed exile in an old grange hall in upstate New York.
In short, it’s a very “Buckner” description: full of strange and seemingly disconnected details, short on explanatory meat, but marvelously evocative. Buckner tells stories with gaping holes, hiding what seem to be the necessary facts. Where Buckner drops off a tale is rarely where he picks it up again. He’s a master at using the gap between as a lure, a trap set for listeners seeking clarity. I’ve fallen into Buckner songs by chasing a particular phrase, only to fine myself someplace all together different when I emerge.
Our Blood is, at least in part, exactly how Buckner describes it: an album of resuscitated and patched sounds, of peripheral intrusions, of expelled breath. Approach it from the wrong angle and the music seems opaque, dense and shut tight with a chain and padlock, like a long-closed warehouse. Find the pathway in, however, and Our Blood promises an adventure of darting nuance and emotional heft.
Buckner declares that het set out to capture a “grand idea of lyrics and music and written stories along a connecting thread or two,” so the listener’s detective work begins with that premise. The cover art, with its Ralph Steadman-esque ink blotted text and Rorschach pattern, is just the first clue that announces its presence but not its meaning.
Next, consider not only the album title Our Blood, but its song titles: Traitor, Escape, Thief, Collusion, Ponder, Witness, Confession, Hindsight, Gang. There’s a caper somewhere at the center of the story, but the action just might be secondary to how the events affect Buckner’s cast of characters. In essence, Buckner is scoring his lyrics, chapter by chapter, but for the art house cinema rather than the multiplex. The plot stretches and sprawls, much too far, indeed, for anyone to make perfect sense of things right off the bat.
Buckner himself says as much in an interview on the Los Angeles music blog Aquarium Drunkard: “The songs have a thread through them that I haven’t really been able to explain to myself yet. Writing’s so prophetic. You never realize what they’re really about until years later.”
Our Blood is an album of endlessly quotable lyrics. But they fit together so well that yanked-from-context examples simply diminish their power. Still, to illustrate how well Buckner operates in media res, consider the album’s opening lines, from “Traitor”: “You woke up too late to know what they thought / While you were waiting for the strangers, they had gone.” Or consider these lines from the record’s final song “Gang”: “Shaking in the coldest hours, kept just out of mind.” That’s the one that keeps echoing through my own head.
“Traitor” is propelled by ominous, booming drums and layers of swirling, looped guitars. Elsewhere, Buckner employs the album’s brighter songs — “Escape,” “Witness” and “Gang” — as counter measures to that approach, the equivalent of different camera filters used for the different settings of a film. The cinematic feel is further enhanced by the way Buckner toys around with tempo on Our Blood. He has always been deft with hesitations and hurried slurs, the suggestion that hours feel like days or that years can pass in matter of seconds, but this quality is prominent now as never before. “Thief” and the instrumental “Ponder” especially cast discordant shadows over the proceedings.
Buckner can be an esoteric and challenging songwriter, but that’s surely to his credit, not fault. Our Blood confirms Buckner’s status as songwriter extraordinaire. But that could have been said — and was — about his previous records. With its carefully structured diversity of sound, though, Our Blood takes his art into exciting new places without losing what already made it great. The road-less-traveled approach makes it a different sort of success.