The Fugitive Kind 

Buckner loses self for the sake of art

Buckner loses self for the sake of art

Small wonder Richard Buckner sings of U-Hauls, Econo Lodges, and driving solitary stretches of interstate deep into the night. Buckner’s family moved so much when he was young—by his count, three or four times a year—that he wouldn’t know what home looked like if it hit him. “I’m more comfortable outside of familiar settings and places,” he said in an interview last October. “Even before I started touring a lot it was that way with me. I loved being on the road. I love getting lost.”

It makes sense, then, that Buckner views losing himself as a vehicle for personal and artistic discovery, and that his songs often meander, albeit beguilingly so. Take the woozy guitar ditty, “Polly Waltz,” from his last album, Devotion + Doubt. It begins predictably enough, as if it were a variation on a traditional theme. But just as its melody seems on the verge of resolving itself—say, as Merle Travis’ “Dark as a Dungeon”—the tune escapes listeners as Buckner’s fingers wander down a concealed alley.

Much of the San Francisco singer-songwriter’s music, which fuses the sensibilities of Daniel Lanois, Leonard Cohen, and Townes Van Zandt, has this elusive quality. Ever on the verge of settling into a familiar pattern or place, Buckner’s songs trail off in unexpected directions, more often than not beneath a veil of found sounds, muted gutturals, and unearthly strains of steel guitar. In some hands such a tack might seem contrived, a postmodern conceit; with Buckner, though, dissociation has a ring of truth—that of art imitating life.

“So many like us just burn and run,” he acknowledges on “Lucky Buzz,” a song from his new album, Since (MCA). “But we’re the lucky ones,” he adds, “yeah, but we’re the lucky ones!” An air of dissolution belies this assertion. Conveying none of the release of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Buckner’s ravaged baritone sounds more like that of a fugitive who knows that running can easily become its own kind of trap. On “Raze,” he admits as much. “You just pour yourself out and milk your spirit down/But what’re’ya gonna do in another year or two but groove a new rut in another town?”

As gauzy as it is disjunctive, the music here reflects Buckner’s anomie. Much has been made of the record’s noisier tracks, but even with help from arty rockers John McEntire (Tortoise) and David Grubbs (Gastr del Sol), they merely smack of warmed-over Son Volt. Built around furtive, acoustic-guitar-based arrangements akin to the gut-string reveries of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Since is foremost—and at its best—an avant-country album.

The parallels between the two records go beyond formal considerations. Since is more confessional than Nelson’s allegorical opus, but it is, nevertheless, also an outlaw album, one that finds Buckner always on the run from people and situations that call for intimacy and commitment. “Hasn’t it always seemed to be the truth that lays us down,” he wonders at one point. “Well, the truth is (tonight, anyway), I truly want you, but I’ll still slip away somehow.” Of that the surging guitars that follow leave little doubt.

Buckner’s need to move—“Can I keep this buzz around,” he asks himself at one point—doubtless wreaks havoc with relationships. It works wonders for his songwriting, though, which at its best displays an intuitive, if unconventional, grasp of meter that evokes the sprung rhythms of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Witness “Jewelbomb,” where the words “You jewel” set in motion the cascading lines, “You sudden lil’ scrapper/You song I razed before.” Or how, on “The Ocean Cliff Clearing,” Buckner’s images impel each other along to create a sense of free-falling abandon: “A Showboat Motel, Casper night/The river’s high (and losing)/I’ll watch your flaming figure fly and burn on out at your ruins.”

As these passages attest, Buckner’s vivid, stream-of-consciousness ramblings owe much to those of his songwriting hero, Townes Van Zandt. Not only that, images of flames predominate, especially those that flicker out precipitously, much as Van Zandt’s did. “How low can your fuse glow and warm you/Until your torch begins to fade,” Buckner muses on “Once.”

Given the despair and sense of doom that have pervaded his work from the outset, it’s easy to see how Buckner might identify with the late singer-songwriter, someone with whom he shares a gift for wresting beauty from brokenness. Listening to Since, it’s as if that’s the most Buckner expects from life, at least until the final stanza of “Once,” where, lost in beauty, he desires to be found—delivered—as well. “I dreamed of a couple dancing close and drunk/In the spray of lights they made,” he sings, recounting the epiphany. “And once I was dug up, I was sinking,” he continues, presumably referring to his long-standing feelings of uprootedness, “but now I’m longing to be saved.”

Richard Buckner plays 9 p.m. Tuesday with Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison at The Sutler.


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