Photo: Dean Karr / Courtesy of New West Records

Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck Face the World Staring Straight Forward on ‘Arthur Buck’

An unexpected collaboration between Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck produces a great summer record of noisy, dark garage-pop.

Arthur Buck
Joseph Arthur and Peter Buck
New West
15 June 2018

Peter Buck’s generosity and willingness to gig with just about anyone anywhere is legendary and has long been the subject of lighthearted humor (as in “Last Thursday, Pete Buck sat in with the Decemberists at the Tin Dog Festival before jumping over to the other side of town to guest onstage with Billy Bragg at a farm to table co-op fundraiser, but all that happened after he had dropped in unexpectedly on Miss Higginbottom’s chorus recital at the Woodrow Wilson Middle School for an impromptu version of ‘Waiting for the Man’.”). If you find that joke funny, you’ve been a fan for a while; if you find it believable, you’ve probably seen Buck jump onstage somewhere for an unexpected sit in. Arthur Buck couldn’t exist if there wasn’t some small grain of truth to the joke and is the result of some previous collaborations, coincidence, and just plain good timing.

Joseph Arthur, an equally inexhaustible performer who has gained a strong following based on his exhilarating live shows and heavy touring schedule, has released 14 albums since catching the attention of Peter Gabriel and being signed to his Real World label in 1997. It would seem an inevitability that Arthur and Buck would cross paths and find mutual regard and that is pretty much what has happened over the years, as Arthur opened for R.E.M. on multiple occasions and they memorably performed “Walk on the Wild Side” along with Mike Mills on the David Letterman Show in support of Arthur’s tribute album Lou. On this go-round, Arthur’s performance at Buck’s annual Los Todos Santos Music Festival along with a forgotten dobro guitar initiated a spontaneous creative partnership and high-speed recording session. The result is an excellent summertime garage-pop record with an edge.

A theme of displacement threads through these dark pop songs reflecting the uncertainty of the present times. The song’s subjects are perpetually searching for some missing component of their lives or the world at large. As in the wonderful, seductive album opener, “I Am the Moment”, where we encounter a call to action disguised as a typical romantic come on of a pop song: “I’ll give you a hand,” Arthur sings, “You’re not wrong to always want to expand / Or to find a kind of spiritual plan / To go beyond space and time and escape this predicament.” The chorus of “I am the moment waiting for you” is an invitation to seize the moment and take action. There are numerous such calls and declarations throughout Arthur Buck. The Nine Inch Nails-inspired “If You Wake Up in Time” features Arthur berating the listener that “you’re wrong about everything you wanted”, while Buck’s discomfiting growl of “save your life… if you wake up in time” offers a slap-in-the-face chorus.

These are songs written at a time of the political blurring into the personal, of broad social disruption bleeding into personal spiritual crisis. The Mexicali-inflected “Forever Waiting” mingles its uplift with lines like “Don’t you know your gods are changing? / You don’t have anyone at all.” The brief, unsettling “Summertime” consists of two simple, repeated lines: “Everybody likes to think they’re holding on/ And yet they’re running out of chances.” “American Century” encapsulates our cultural greed by evoking John F. Kennedy’s most famous lines: “Used to be about what you can do / Now it’s about what you can get.” And “Forever Falling”, one of the album’s numerous high points, confronts our collective dark mood when Arthur sings “I love the way you lost / Because I love the way you run.” Recorded before the high-profile suicides of Kate Spade and Antony Bourdain, the song nonetheless addresses the increasingly infectious disease of depression with the lines “I don’t even want to act like everything is fine / Every morning I just thank the Lord that I’m still alive.” This is a love song for broken people who still have pieces left to build upon (and we all do, no matter how broken).

This is not, though, a downer of a record. Quite the opposite: throughout, the music on Arthur Buck is upbeat and eclectic, even playful, offering a contrast to the lyrics. One might say that Arthur and Buck’s spirited playing and programming make the medicine go down smoother. If one lyrical consistency is anxiety, another is perseverance and finding joy in existence. Album closer “Can’t Make It Without You” might be the album’s greatest track, an uplifting appreciation of partnership and commitment, of facing the world staring straight forward while in the company of a great friend or lover. The regard Arthur and Buck clearly have for each other shows through on every track of this unexpected pleasure.

RATING 7 / 10