Merge’s resident guru on song returns with a set that hits the sweet spot.
Merge Records, 2013
7.8 / 10.0
Buckner’s career began with Bloomed (1994), a lyrically-dense suite of songs recorded in Lubbock, Texas (produced by Lloyd Maines) and heavily influenced by that state’s tradition of whiskey-soaked poet/troubadors, probably best embodied by Townes Van Zandt. (Since 1999, the album has been kept in print (with additional bonus tracks) by Rykodisc offshoot Slow River Records at Buckner’s request, the artwork on the back cover was edited to remove his then-girlfriend from the picture.) In January 1996, while living in San Francisco, he recorded an album’s worth of acoustic songs, all of which would reappear in more fully realized forms on his second and third albums. This CD was self-produced and self-released, and was sold exclusively at his early shows.
Later that year, he signed with MCA Records, for whom he recorded two albums, both produced by J.D. Foster. Devotion + Doubt was released in 1997, displaying a more adventurous, almost avant-garde approach to songwriting and arranging, and featuring backing from members of the band Giant Sand, as well as Maines and Marc Ribot, among others. Its follow-up, 1998’s Since, continues in this style, with an even greater emphasis on detailed production, this time featuring contributions from John McEntire, Dave Schramm, David Grubbs, Syd Straw, and others. Although these albums garnered considerable critical approval for Buckner, they did not perform well enough for his label, and he was released from his contract with MCA (whom he then nicknamed ‘Musical Career Assassins’) shortly thereafter. Since then, he has returned to recording for smaller labels, to continued critical acclaim and cult status. His 2000 album The Hill – his first for Chicago-based indie label Overcoat Recordings – features poems from Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology (1915), which Buckner set to music. The album plays as a single track, nearly thirty-five minutes long.
Buckner is currently aligned with North Carolina-based indie label Merge Records, who have released two of his albums so far: 2004’s Dents and Shells and 2006’s Meadow. Between the two, he released an album with Jon Langford (most notably of The Mekons) called Sir Dark Invader vs. The Fanglord (2005, originally recorded in Sally Timms’s house in 2002) on Buried Treasure Records. Merge Records released Buckner’s long awaited new album Our Blood on August 2, 2011. Buckner had in recent albums eschewed his initial acoustic approach and displayed an increasing interest in more abstract music styles until reintegrating his acoustic approach on Our Blood.
But just out of time
By a stolen line
But you cry now
-Richard Buckner, “Lean-To”
Surrounded finds Buckner hitting an artistic sweet spot with a collection that is reminiscent of J. Mascis’ solo material, Jim O’Rourke’s most accessible works, and even Kurt Vile’s most recent Wakin’ on a Pretty Daze. The songs are very basic acoustic arrangements, accented by constant atmospheric studio effects that never take up so much space that they become a distraction. This steady hand in arrangement is enough to take Buckner from the type of artist one respects, to one they gush over. The sound of this record is constantly inviting/engaging. The anchor here is Buckner’s vocal. Not as isolated as on previous releases, his warmth comes through on songs like “Portrait” and “Go”. This easy listen is at the same time one of the most creatively satisfying and accessible records Merge has released this year. An absolutely easy recommendation for a fantastic and exciting record.
“When You Tell Me How It Is”