Buckner continues to follow his muse into thorny territory, but its worth the scratches to follow him.
Richard Buckner's songs have always had their own internal momentum, whether it's from the stored energy of resentments finally blooming, wanderlust pulling the narrator from one "fresh start" to another, or a million motivations in between. It's always been easy to imagine Buckner's narrators sitting in a dusty pickup truck, at a crossroads, poised on that precipice between the past and the future.
Over the years, and over his last few records, that mental image increasingly finds that pickup truck simply barreling past that stop sign, as if acknowledging the past were to admit that there were still choices. Partly, this is due to Buckner's increasingly insistent sound; he long ago started minimizing the ramshackle folk elements in his songs, in favor of a stripped-down, tighter rock aesthetic. He's working harder, and making the listeners work right alongside him.
Accessibility's never been at the top of Buckner's priority list, but it's hard not to feel like something's been lost in the process. The pregnant pause that precedes the lyric "What if I just showed up tonight" -- as much a statement of intent as a question -- in "Ed's Song" or the cavernous piano chords and wide-open spaces of "Roll" and similar moments proved Buckner to be an artist who knew his way around dynamics. Those moments have become harder to find ever since Buckner adapted Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology on 2000's The Hill, as Buckner seemingly glimpsed a new path, free of obvious songwriting choices, for his search into the soul of a song. Maybe it's similar to Peter Buck's statement that he could write songs like "Driver 8" in his sleep, but that he'd be bored to tears -- he'd rather challenge himself. Thankfully, that sentiment's worked out better for Buckner than it has for R.E.M.
Meadow continues in that vein, and if anything, finds Buckner's lyrics becoming even more elliptical. He's always been fond of finding new ways to say things, and then breaking down that way of saying it to find yet another way to say it. As a result, Buckner's original meaning seems less important, and the listener's own interpretations seem increasingly valid. Take, for example, the following snippet from album-opener "Town": "Pretty destroyed / Coming through / Seizures spin around the room / Eastern time, seasons call / They're not the same when they show at all". Certainly, that's chock-full of meaning for Buckner, but that meaning is anyone's guess at this point (although it does kind of shimmer and make more sense the more you look at it), so we have to fill in the blanks. And that's just fine; music would mean a lot less without listener identification anyway.
Besides, there are still moments of clarity; lines like "What will you miss when things are fine?" (also from "Town") and "Aren't you cold standing by my window curtained up and closed?" (from "Window") possess devastating directness.
Buckner delivers it all with a sound that's robust by his recent standards, enlisting folks like Doug Gillard (Guided By Voices, Cobra Verde, solo), Kevin March (GBV, Dambuilders, Those Bastard Souls), JD Foster, and Steven Goulding (Waco Brothers, Mekons). Gillard's guitar, in particular, consistently adds minor wrinkles to Buckner's arrangements. "Before" and "Numbered" are fleshed out by piano, and warm organ tones in "Window" work their way around pounding drums and ringing guitars. And thankfully, Buckner can still lay down an inspired vocal above and beyond the warm idiosyncracies of his regular drawl. The way he croons his way through "Mile" sounds for all the world like voices from the past calling the listener back.
All in all, Meadow sounds like a natural step in the evolution of Buckner's sound. He's still poetic and hard to pin down, but if there's one criticism, it's that his fondness for the midtempo-to-slightly-uptempo range risks making things run together. If a song doesn't immediately hook you with its arrangement or with a lyric that grabs you by the collar, it runs the risk of getting lumped into a same-sounding pile, which is a shame, because almost without fail, even Buckner's most unassuming songs reward close scrutiny. Meadow's a solid record, one that gives back what the listener puts in.