Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Richard Buckner. Devotion + Doubt (MCA, 1997)

"I saw such light in you/ Crushed by the basement view."

I arrived at Devotion + Doubt through a friend, drunk.

One summer, while spending the better part of two months nursing a hangover and teaching high school U.S. History to disinterested and disgruntled teenagers, I heard this friend play a lovely version of Richard Buckner's "Lil Wallet Picture" on his guitar as a prelude to my descending (or rather, returning) into my customary evening inebriation. I was immediately touched by the song's raw emotion and wounded vulnerability, by the simple beauty of the melody and the heartfelt poetry of the lyrics. Consequently, I determined to check out this Richard Buckner fellow post haste, and rapidly acquired a copy of 1997's Devotion + Doubt. And I've never regretted it.

Buckner is a fairly bright star in the alt-country universe, with a string of well-received albums stretching back to 1994's Bloomed. It's easy to see why: this Californian balladeer has a way with a melody, and a striking ability to strip songs down to their bare essence, revealing the fundamental truths buried under the gloss and filigree. His is a dusky, tarnished sound, matte black and burning bright, with an urgent intensity expressed through delivery, not volume.

Devotion + Doubt, Buckner's third LP, is an excellent showcase for his considerable talents. This is a collection of mostly spare, acoustic arrangements, windswept, lonely guitars kept company by fiddles, pedal steel, and mandolins. Members of Giant Sand and Calexico are along for the ride, as are ace countrypolitan multi-instrumentalist Lloyd Maines (father of the singing Dixie Chick) and avant-guitarist Marc Ribot. It's a pretty strong bench, and they're backing up some pretty strong material.

What Devotion + Doubt lacks in sonic punch it more than makes up for in atmospherics and emotional resonance. And Buckner has a voice custom built for this stuff, a rich-yet-shaky tenor, with a touch of southern-by-way-of-Bakersfield lilt (does this Californian have some Okie in him?) and a sweet rustic trill. The high lonesome affectations suit the material, coming across as sincere where they could have come across as inauthentic.

The isolated pianos and slightly dragging snare of Pull frame the opener's reverbed chords, as Buckner sings of love and dysfunction and longing. "Of course I'll show/ Of course I'll fire/ And I'll pull along you for miles," he whispers, sounding lost and hopeful. Lil Wallet Picture is a revelation, a luminous air, a downtrodden masterwork. The pedal steel keens as the guitars quietly rage, notes bouncing off the echo chamber of the protagonist's broken heart. "There was one last look as the UHaul broke free/ Now the ditches are flooded over the backroad/ Damn this stretch of 99, that takes so many lives/ One of them was mine." Anyone who's ever watched miles multiply between himself and his lover can instantly identify with the feelings of powerlessness and sorrow pulsing from those lines.

Ed's Song features one of the LP's best vocal performances, Buckner investing the gentle tune with a nuance and subtlety that elevates it to the realm of the sublime. Elsewhere, the Appalachian a capella of Fater is darkly touching and highlights Buckner's mastery of old-time cadences and language, while the upbeat jangle of "A Goodbye Rye" sounds like a stellar Uncle Tupelo outtake circa Anodyne.

Richard Buckner is a singular singer/songwriter, with a unique vision and the chops to bring it to life. His tunes conjure up heartbreak and joy, defeat and wistful, haunted elation. And for me, they conjure up a summer of idle dissipation, liver abuse, and laughs. Which is also pretty awesome.