It wasn’t so very long ago that Richard Buckner shows ran the risk of being endurance tests more than anything else. At the time, Buckner was fond of linking songs together with loops of feedback and guitar squalls. Sometimes, they formed nice segues between songs. Other times, you couldn’t be sure he wasn’t taking some anger out on the crowd.
This was also around the same time that Buckner struggled with the concept of accessibility on his records. Gone were the ramshackle, charming arrangements of his first few albums. In their place was often what could best be called a mid-tempo churn. The occasional great song poked out, but if so, it was just a positive side effect of Buckner hunting down a muse that he could follow while keeping himself interested in the music he was making.
After a long break, 2011’s Our Blood represented a welcome return. Buckner was still singing between gritted teeth, but there was new life to these songs even if Buckner continued to mine familiar (and creatively rich) veins of isolation and loneliness. There was also restrained use of instruments like marimbas, synths, and harmonium.
With Surrounded, Buckner gives us one of the prettiest, most delicate records of his careers. There are still a few songs where he hunkers down into a repetitive guitar groove, but his use of new elements like an electronic autoharp and some gadget called an Electro-Harmonix POG2 pedal buoy up and add texture to even the darkest, most insistent songs. From the nimble fingerpicking that kicks off the album, Surrounded is full of nice sonic touches, from the multi-tracked vocals of “Beautiful Question” to the harmonies of “Cut” to the wheezing sound effects in the background of “When You Tell Me How It Is”.
Buckner’s lyrics are as densely packed as ever, with the liner notes returning to what Buckner calls text-embedded lyrics. Buckner did the same thing on earlier albums like Since and Impasse, and it’s essentially Buckner revealing alternate or more fully-formed lyrics. Buckner’s always prided himself on whittling his words down to the kernel of what he’s trying to say and if he can find a unique phrasing, all the better. In the liner notes for Surrounded, the lyrics in red are not sung at all, so when the title track starts off with Buckner singing “you just won’t lie down,” he’s already shaved off a sizeable chunk of unsung lyrics in “These static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but…”
It’s pretty safe to assume at this point that the Richard Buckner of 1994’s Bloomed or 1997’s Devotion + Doubt isn’t coming back. That’s perfectly fine. You don’t want artists to trap themselves in amber. Besides, Buckner’s creative shifts have often been fascinating, and you could argue that Surrounded reveals the fruits of some of Buckner’s well-documented creative struggles. The advantage of Buckner’s old, more conventional song structures was that we listeners could be surprised more readily. It was more apparent just how unique Buckner’s voice was when he was in the guise of a traditional singer-songwriter, singing about these things we’d heard before, but in ways we’d never heard them. The Buckner of today is more minimalist, more streamlined, and he asks his listeners to put in a little more work. It’s only fair. He’s spent about 20 years struggling to put himself into his music; why should he coddle us in the process?