One part George Jones, one part John Ashbery, Richard Buckner brings the MFA poetry workshop to the honky-tonk, or vice versa. He’s the kind of lyricist who is typically described as “elliptical,” “gnomic,” and “cryptic” — rockcrit shorthand for “I have no idea what this dude is talking about, but I’m pretty sure he’s totally smart.” (Did I really compare him with Ashbery? Please kill me now.) All the postgrad flummery ceases to matter, though, when he opens his mouth and lets loose with that virtuosic, completely natural-sounding melisma. His scratchy, surprisingly supple baritone is as sturdy as maple and as fluid as mercury, every bit as direct and engaging as his lyrics are detached and impenetrable; he sings with a constrained urgency, as if he’s confessing some terrible secret under duress. Even his most prosaic lines are charged with mystery, tricked out like riddles or codes. Referents shift; quotations float by in unattributed fragments; the story is always in media res; nothing gets resolved. His vocal melodies maunder and swerve, collapsing in on themselves in rippling sighs, dissipating like fog. It’s no surprise, really, that Buckner’s songs aren’t covered as often as those of lesser songwriters; few mortal singers could discern the pattern in his mystic scumble.
Meadow, Buckner’s eighth full-length, finds our craggy aphorist in fine form, which is to say that he sounds exactly like himself. As a songwriter, he’s become increasingly hard to pin down in recent years, the quicksilver folk of his mid-’90s material giving way to something even stranger and slipperier, something infused by rock yet not quite of it. If you take the uncharitable view, his songs seem a little monotonous, so consistently Buckneresque that they all blend together in a lovely irresolute haze. If you’re a fan, however, you’ll have no cause for complaint. Buckner sounds like Buckner, all curling smoke and brooding portent, and all is right with this world.
Compared with his last album, 2004’s Dents and Shells, Meadow sounds brighter and more buoyant, perhaps a bit more rockishly up-tempo, but the differences have more to do with the instrumentation and arrangements than with the compositions themselves. A good part of the change in sound, one suspects, is due to a new supporting cast, one that comprises Guided by Voices alumni Doug Gillard and Kevin March, the Mekons’ Steven Goulding, and bassist/producer J.D. Foster, who worked with Buckner on Since and Devotion + Doubt. Gillard’s electric-guitar hooks are nothing short of revelatory, irradiating Buckner’s murky strumming with innumerable points of light. Gillard’s presence is especially striking on “Lucky,” which concludes with a magnificent skirmish of chiming counterpoint, the guitars reverberating against each other until they slowly merge and fade away. Goulding’s percussion isn’t as flashy, but it’s no less impressive. Steady and propulsive on “Spell,” skipping slyly on “Town,” dropping out to the slightest shiver of tambourine on “Lucky” and to a faint hiss of cymbals on “Canyon,” his rhythms are ideally suited to Buckner’s idiosyncratic phrasing, neither too subtle nor too insistent.
One of the most characteristic aspects of Buckner’s style is his penchant for dynamic juxtapositions, the way his voice tends to linger over each line while the band accelerates behind him. This slow-against-fast technique makes for a fertile tension, particularly on the album’s highlight, “Kingdom,” which pits his languorous drawl against skittering hard-panned drums, random clinks, and an ominous faraway buzz. Tempered by twinkling guitars and a lilting melody, it’s ever-so-slightly off-kilter, a dizzy double-time shuffle that sounds the way a nighttime sky looks to a drunk, all smeary shimmer and swirl.