[1 August 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Our Blood is one of those records with a crazy back story, one of those things that took travelling a rough road to create. Richard Buckner was, at one point, watched pretty closely by the law in his hometown in upstate New York after some event with a headless corpse in a burned-out car and Buckner’s own beat-up truck. Then, less dramatically, his tape machine died with some new material on it. Then he moved and put some new mixes on a laptop, but his new place got broken into and the laptop was taken. So much for those songs.
So, yeah, a rough road. Buckner did eventually get the tape machine working again, pulled off what he could, and set to recreating the rest. The resulting record is much more than just the end to a tough story. The music here is every bit as compelling—maybe even more so—than its genesis tale. What’s most interesting is how an album that had so many fits and starts, so many dead ends, still feels like such a natural progression from the records that came before. Our Blood lies somewhere between the bittersweet space of 2004’s Dents and Shells and the dense churn of 2006’s Meadow. Here he hones his songwriting and becomes more intricate in his use of layers, and the results are restrained, often beautiful, and some of the best songs of his career.
There was a time when Buckner could be mistaken as some sort of alt-country singer-songwriter, particularly on his early records. If you catch him live he confirms this persona by sitting there on a stool, his hair falling around his face, but he also belies it by live-sampling buzzing layers of guitar around his gruff voice. It’s a huge sound for just one guy, something far more abrasive than simple folk or alt-country or whatever other corner you want to paint him in. His three records on Merge, and Our Blood in particular, deal in the same kind of layering, albeit in a subtler and certainly quieter way. His recent approach makes for shadowy, rippling songs that—like Buckner’s voice itself—balance honeyed sounds with gruff edges.
The organs here are particularly striking, often sanded down and cool and from the opening, on the dusty “Traitor”, they play against the insistent rattle of Buckner’s guitar. Buckner’s playing softens on “Escape”, his voice vacillates from hushed rasp to high keen and back again, and the organ here meshes with other guitar parts. The layers smudge together into a thick bed of sound, one that feels tightly woven, yet you can still pick out the individual pieces at key points.
Elsewhere, things get scraped out to haunting effect. On “Thief”, an organ pulses deep down in the mix as the incomplete foundation to the song, hypnotizing us while Buckner’s voice drifts melodically over it. It’s a stark shift from the weary but urgent chug of songs like “Traitor”, or the more pastoral roll of late-album standout “Hindsight”. “Ponder” can catch you off guard in a similar way. It’s an instrumental piece that combines a soft ambient groan with off-kilter guitar phrasings. It’s a song adrift in the middle of the record, one that unmoors us after we’ve settled in, brings us back into focus for the wonderful finish to the record. Once you get to the deceptively complex closer “Gang”, you feel like you’ve traveled through these songs with Buckner. Each shift in tone and texture feels like its building to something and the cautious hope in that last song, the brightness glowing dully underneath all its space, gives us a final (and perhaps oblique) destination worth getting to.
Lyrically, Buckner continues to hone his poetic approach to words. I mean this as description more than high-praise, since to praise lyrics as being poetry is the same as praising apples for their citrus-like qualities. To be clear: Lyrics are not poetry, and vice versa. But Buckner’s approach seems to be more about meter than melody, more about the word-to-word sound of his lines than the hard end rhymes and regimented melodies of pop music. Sometimes he’ll just hit with a line that devastates—“Without a fight, they’ll never know we’ve won” in “Escape” for example—but the way he shapes phrases is his most impressive feat here. On “Witness”, for example, he sings “Just too close to miss / Now I’m left with only this”. In both halves of the couplet, he moves from the hard ‘t’ sound to soft ‘s’, from a quick sound to something less certain, something pulled on. It mirrors the feeling of the song perfectly, and throughout the record Buckner’s lyrics—his brilliant word choice, his use of syntax, and yes his sense of melody around them all—don’t explain so much as give us deep impressions.
It’s indirect, sure, but puzzling out his meaning here, the way you can puzzle out the layers in the songs, is what makes Our Blood such a lasting, resonant record. Buckner established himself long ago as a songwriter of the highest order, but in this age in music—where five years between records is an eternity, maybe a career death sentence—he has grabbed our attention immediately and reminded us not only what we loved about him, but what tricks he’s learned while we weren’t paying attention.