Circular acoustic guitar notes shower down as Richard Buckner’s voice, a tad quavering and common enough to seem to sing for us all, rises from the melody on “Surrounded.” A Simon & Garfunkel-esque bit of vulnerability that suggests his torn and battered heart is still on his sleeve, the recording’s opener makes angst a most alluring commodity. Buckner, with his avant alt-country that’s long on sonic landscapes and abstractions, continues that path less taken, yet somehow he leans closer to the organic and vital. With a loose right wrist, the acoustic guitar brings a warm woodiness to juxtapose the more progressive electronic autoharp that exudes an otherworldliness.
For all the aspiring musicians out there, Richard Buckner presents a hyper-realistic portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man. Against a backdrop of nomadism and varying oddjobs (anything from U.S. Census worker to forklift driver), Buckner has put oil to canvas on 11 full-length albums over the past 20 years. His unique brand of moody alt-country has earned him critical acclaim and a cult following, but never the wealth and means enjoyed by Billboard’s bands-du-jour.
For 20 years, Richard Buckner has elusively drifted through alt-country, electric folk, acoustic rock. Over the past decade, he has shrouded his abstract singer/songwriter music with vast, ominously serene arrangements. But no matter which way Buckner tacks, he always contrasts imagery so nonfigurative it seems shaped from vapor with tactile, oaken music.
It wasn’t so very long ago that Richard Buckner shows ran the risk of being endurance tests more than anything else. At the time, Buckner was fond of linking songs together with loops of feedback and guitar squalls. Sometimes, they formed nice segues between songs. Other times, you couldn’t be sure he wasn’t taking some anger out on the crowd.
Richard Buckner's mind is often not a pleasant place to be inside. After establishing his reputation during the alt-country insurgence of the mid-'90s, his work has evolved in more introspective and challenging ways, to the point where his last effort, 2011's Our Blood, was nearly scrapped due to outside forces imposing themselves upon Buckner's life. With Surrounded, Buckner again chose to do everything himself, but received vital assistance from producer Tucker Martine, in terms of maintaining focus.
Following a long hiatus from recording, experimental alt-country songwriter Richard Buckner was put through the wringer trying to get his 2011 album, Our Blood, out to the masses. Circumstances as bothersome as a stolen laptop and as alarming as being detained briefly for a murder investigation (it wasn't him!) held that record up for months and might have had something to do with the more streamlined, somewhat urgent approach to the songwriting on Surrounded. Putting aside the regular tool kit of guitars and pianos, Buckner wrote all nine compositions here with the uncommon instrumentation of an electronic autoharp and an octave-shifting pedal, fleshing the tunes out for recording with more familiar instrumentation.
There’s a feeling we all know that’s best described as 'oh shit, not again'. You know the one. Richard Buckner has seemingly had more than his fair share of it, and that’s not just judging by the world-weary rasp he sings in. His last album, Our Blood, suffered major setbacks due equipment failure and the theft of a laptop, the completed record wrenched from his grasp twice.
As he's proved over a record-making career that came into full bloom on 1997's Devotion + Doubt, Buckner is a folk-style modernist with an intoxicating tenor and an abstractly heart-wrenching sense of poetics – think of his style as emotional psychedelia. This potent set reveals some of his writing technique, or seems to: nine spare songs about buried dreams and dug-up memories apparently carved out of a sheet of prose (included with the CD), edits highlighted. The self-produced LP swirls drones and uncharacteristic electronics behind evanescent imagery.
For nearly twenty years, Richard Buckner has operated on the outskirts of Americana, twisting traditional music into his own image and eschewing the usual singer-songwriter path. Even when having his obligatory stab at the major label big time in the mid-90s, Buckner chose to operate esoterically. Instead of delivering albums of his more relatable, instantly understandable acoustic rock he chose to collaborate with the likes of Marc Ribot, ex Yo La Tengo man Dave Schramm and Syd Straw to produce the avant garde Devotion + Doubt and Since which of course got him dropped.
The thing about Richard Buckner’s Our Blood, fantastic despite its flaws, was that it was consumed by its surrounding narrative. Buckner spent five years in the wringer recording and re-recording the album. It was a Sisyphean half-decade odyssey marked by album delays caused by stolen laptops, melted hard drives and a bizarre murder investigation involving a body with a severed head.
As long-time admirers of Richard Buckner’s music, we’d like to thank you first for providing a quality record label home and nation-wide distro for the singer-songwriter these past years. Wait to stand by your man and get the word out, too. But after spending quite a bit of time with his latest outing, Surrounded, we humbly submit a suggestion for your label.