A Pocket Knife for Long Nights
161 · 26 February 98
Richard Buckner: Devotion + Doubt
When you punch in the right set of numbers, on the keypad that operates the lock of the door to the men's room where I work, a little whir emanates from the mechanism, a whispery little whine that is, I swear, muttering the words "Too much technology". After the first few software companies you get used to combination locks, of course, but all the others in my experience have been simple switches, which click, once, with an attitude halfway between efficiency and officiousness, indicating that you may now open the door without fear of reprisals. The one they just put on our bathroom door, though, is actually doing work. There's a motor inside, which, although for some reason I am rarely, on my way into the bathroom, in the mood to conduct a detailed experiment to verify this guess, I assume is forcibly retracting a latch to facilitate my entry. I think this little service is intended to please me, but I'm too self-conscious to enjoy it. Surely there is a task, in the wide and inadequate world, at which this little motor could be better employed. Somewhere, perhaps in the physical therapist's office down the hall from us, a seventy-year-old war widow recovering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome surgery is struggling to open her pocketbook to extract her HMO ID card, and instead of helping her this motor is intent on a labor I would readily perform myself. If it can turn this latch, how far could it fling her ID? (Possibly it would be wise to attach some sort of small tether.)
One might reasonably inquire, since my company is on the sixth floor of a six-floor building, which we share only with the aforementioned physical therapist, whose office must, judging from the dimensions of the building and the portion of it our premises consume (unless there's a tesseract I'm not taking into account), consist of only a single cramped room, why it is necessary to lock the bathroom, at all. Possibly there is a good answer, possibly there is not, but I need my remaining dissident karma at this company too badly to be the one instigating a corporate debate about restroom policy. Even if we assume that the bathroom merits defending, the lock we had before the current overachieving model accomplished its task with, I thought, sufficient aplomb. It did not whir. It didn't click, either. In fact, it did no work at all. Whatever sequence of numbers you proposed to it, it would under no circumstances allow the door's handle to be turned. The key bit of knowledge you had to know to open the door -- and it is probably indicative of the mindset of computer programmers that I believe we all had to be told this detail -- was that the door did not have a latch. The lock had no known valid combination, and the handle would never turn, but neither components interfered with simply pushing the door open and letting it swing closed again. It was impossible for the door to fail to open during a crisis, nobody ever forgot the secret once they learned it, and anybody who didn't work for us still ended up banging on our door (protected by another, even more complicated, combination lock) to find out what the code for the bathroom was. This was, as far as I'm concerned, exactly the right amount of technology for the problem.
The idea of appropriate technology has been weighing heavily on my mind, this work week, because version two of the product I spend my days designing, a piece of web-based team-collaboration software called eRoom, has just entered beta testing, which means that we've now switched to using the new version for our work, as well. Among the many new features we've added, because that, sadly, is all the software industry understands how to do to software, is threaded discussions. In version one, an eRoom discussion was simply a sequence of comments. As with a real conversation, comments accumulated, one after another, in the order they were made. This system had two great virtues. First, it was simple to explain: either you added a comment to an existing discussion, or else you started a new discussion of your own. Second, it was extremely simple to read: we arranged each discussion on a single web page for you, so all you had to do was start at the top, and read until you finished. If people made more comments later, while you were away, you just picked up where you left off (and, actually, we kept track of this for you). The system also, however, had one terminal flaw, which was that when you told analysts, reviewers or potential customers (or most of our own employees, for that matter) that eRoom did not have "threaded discussions", they frowned. In many cases I'm not completely convinced they knew what the phrase meant, but they knew it was something they were supposed to ask for, and that our competitors claimed to have it, so it was bad that we did not.
I don't know how close my vehement filibuster against including threaded discussions in version two came to getting me fired, but it came close to getting me resigned, if that's any indication. This argument will probably not make much sense to you if you haven't spent some time in online discussions and sat through an hour or two of my fuming about them, and as my failure to convince enough of my colleagues that it's a bad idea demonstrates, it might not make much sense to you even if you have, but I believe that threading destroys discussions. Actually, there are two aspects to threading. One is just grouping each sequence of comments about a single subject together, instead of having several concurrent conversations intertwined. This aspect is essential, for the much the same reason that businesses buy PBXes, not party lines. Each such sequence of related comments is referred to, for reasons I've forgotten, as a thread, and if that's all a threaded discussion consisted of, I'd have had no complaint. (Indeed, the discussions in eRoom version one were threads, in exactly this sense.) The other thing that "threaded discussions" has come to mean, however, is that in addition to adding your comment at the end of a sequence, it must also be possible to insert it as a direct response to one that was made some time ago. These responses can in turn be responded to directly, etc.; software with "fully" threaded discussions allows you to construct a hierarchy of infinite (or practically infinite) depth. It is very satisfying, when you have a comment to make, to be able to travel back in time and make it at exactly the point in the conversation where it logically belonged. When you read an online discussion, particularly one that has been going on for a while without you, you will probably have lots of impulses to do this. And now, in version two, you can.
The price that the technology extracts, however, for this thrill (in addition to complicating the explanation and the interface), is that the more responses people insert, the more unintelligible the conversation becomes. In between the first thing somebody said and the second there may now be a dozen increasingly tangential asides, each in turn interrupted by subsequent recursive insertions. If you go away for two days, when you come back there is no longer any useful concept of "where you left off", because comments have been inserted all over the place, and you are forced to scroll back and forth, examining the structure of the hierarchy, to figure out what context each comment was created in. In catering to the writer's impulse to revise history, we have destroyed the reader's ability to understand it. My impassioned resistance to this aspect of threading was based on the conviction that giving the participants in our software's discussions this tool can only make their online-collaboration lives (and thus their work lives, and thus their lives) worse, never better. The saddest thing, to me, is that this problem did not need technology. If you're having a real conversation, in a real room with your real mouths, and you wish to return to an earlier point, you don't do it with time travel, you do it with language. You say "As Dorothy said earlier", and everybody swings around to look at Dorothy, and scrambles (you and Dorothy included) to remember what it was she said, and as soon as somebody reminds them, the conversation is off again, the earlier dialogue woven back into the ongoing one. It's not efficient or glamorous, but at the end of a real conversation that's looped back on itself a hundred times you have still had a single conversation. At the end of a threaded discussion you have had a fractal.
But convincing an audience of frowning analysts, reviewers and prospective customers that you've omitted an item on their checklist intentionally, for their own good, is something that the grammar of modern marketing literature is ill-suited for, and so I was eventually ordered, by executive fiat, to design in fully threaded discussions. And I did, and they aren't as awful as they could have been, but I still believe, without a shred of doubt, that it was the wrong decision. I believe, the way the guy who first realized the importance of sterilizing surgical equipment believed. Yes, his customers frowned at him, and griped, and some of them defected to his competitors, who could "clean" a scalpel a whole lot faster than he could, but what other option would his conscience allow him? He knew it was the right trade-off. And sure enough, as we start to use this new version ourselves, and people begin inserting responses in the middle of our old linear conversations, the conversations are beginning to unravel, in exactly the way I knew they would. Not only have we brought more technology to where only a technologist would perceive a lack, but we've spent time on the effort that could have been used for something better. It depresses me to be a part of it, and the bathroom lock's eager, infuriating buzz is not helping. So I go back to my office, put the CD of Ultravox remixes and the new Peter Godwin retrospective back in my bag for later, when my gadgeteer's equilibrium returns, and turn something simpler up a little louder, hoping it will show me a way out.
This week's primary anti-technophilia soundtrack, then, is Richard Buckner's Devotion + Doubt. I always watch curiously, as I work my way through the records I buy during the new-release doldrums of a new year after seeing them on other people's year-end top-ten lists, to see how quickly I come across one that makes me regret that it wasn't on my own list, and this year it didn't take very long at all. Devotion + Doubt, if I'd heard it a month earlier, would have been up there with Steve Earle's El Corazón and Son Volt's Straightaways, records that seem to me to have been hewn out of a secret vein of the American heartland's musical traditions. Earle and Son Volt's variants of country are heavily influenced by rock, though, and Buckner's emphatically is not. The country aesthetic also normally relies on a certain amount of bluster, oversized belt-buckles and confident drawls and sharp-toed boots and the ruddy health of lives spent outdoors, which Buckner demonstrates none of. For all the bottleneck sighs, violin reels and acoustic-guitar finger-picking, this music has more in common with Lisa Germano or Ron Sexsmith than Vince Gill or Garth Brooks. The cover art looks like 4AD, and in the booklet photo Richard looks like Matthew Sweet, but when the songs start he sounds like Nick Drake might have if he'd grown up in Texas.
There are three things about this album that seem to me to be tokens of genuine brilliance. The first one, and the one that spun me around in my chair to face the speakers the first time I put this album on, is Richard's voice. He doesn't sing so much as he flutters. It's a rare syllable that chooses a note and sticks to it; most of them tumble through a dozen of them like he began by learning grace notes and then his piano teacher got married and moved away. He sounds so fragile and hesitant that I wonder if these flourishes aren't evasions born of insecurity, as if settling on a single note is simply beyond him. They whirl by so quickly, on such tiny breaths, that it seems amazing they don't tear apart under the stress of their own movements. These are the flight patterns of a bird, not an airplane, less products of aerodynamics and propulsion than of a careful modulation of the delicate tension between stalling and soaring. He inhales like a gull leans into an updraft, and spirals into silence as if the bird isn't landing, it's just arriving, coincidentally, at the same place as the earth. It is sad, his voice, but many sad singers are sad on the way down, wistful for vanished joys, and Richard seems to me to be sad on the way up, as if the idea that misery isn't merely inevitable is only a thought he's had recently, and sadness is thus the first rung to cling to on the ladder towards everything else.
The second astonishing thing about this album is how fundamental its quietness is to it. Producer J.D. Foster makes no attempt to bolster Richard's voice with processing, and the arrangements, for the most part, are even quieter than he is, so to hear anything in this music at all you're forced to turn it way up, to volumes that bring out details that, in conventional rock songs, you'd never notice: the above-the-nut crinkle in "Pull"; the sudden slight volume jump in the abrupt transition from "Ed's Song" to "Home" (there are only a couple song breaks longer than a second anywhere on the record); the final heartbreaking line of "4am" sung from nowhere near the microphone; a snare brush in "Roll" so subtle it might be an hourglass being inverted, only enough louder for "Polly Waltz" that it sounds like somebody is moving a cereal box around the studio; a virtually inaudible guitar solo in "Figure", like bleed-through from a track that got erased; the nasal resonance of the wordless hums between the lines of the harrowing "On Travelling", and low noises like a water tower being bowed on a summer night. Rock productions sometimes emphasize details like these, too, but they usually do so with aggressive compression (Sinéad O'Connor's vocals on The Lion and the Cobra, for instance), which turns the projection of nuances into a form of confrontation. Here they are things you hear, but only barely, and it's hard to be certain you're even meant to. The intimacy of this, when it feels like you're listening often as hard as the musicians are playing, is very different; if Sinéad's howls are the closeness of the alien queen's third jaws, clicking a centimeter from your face, this is more like the way you can tell, from the contours of the bed and the way the walls sound, without turning around, that your lover is there, awake too, keeping you company in your silent vigil against sleep.
And the last thing that tinges my obsessive repetitions of this album with awe, not just pleasure, is the frequency with which the lyrics of these songs send me off on speculative tangents that may or may not be what they intended. "Your braided hair's been pulling us into our lives", he sings to a lover in "Pull", and I'm cast spinning from the idea that even braiding your hair involves enough self-awareness to be your undoing to an uncertainty about whether he means that her hair is their downfall or their salvation. "Damn this stretch of 99, that takes so many lives", begins the chorus of "Lil Wallet Picture", and I'm not sure whether he means that it kills people, or that people have spent lives making it (and then I lose track of the difference); "Hand me that lil wallet picture in 1985 one more time", goes the rest of it, and although this is a simple sentence if you assume there's an implied "taken" after "picture", read as is it would have to mean that he's asking for 1985 to be relived; and as the song ends, "The Uhaul broke free. Now the ditches are flooded over the backroad", which should mean that he's dragging the trailer out of the mud, but I persist in mistaking "ditches" for "dishes", in which case the trailer has come loose of the car, and their possessions are scattering, with a metaphorical clatter, over the highway. "I knew the moon would send you back", he says, in the sinister leave-taking "Fater", and I can't figure out if this is the beginning of a second chance, or why he doesn't want her any more, the cliché about setting your loved ones free turned into a paradox. "I looked inside the ring we wear + read myself to sleep", in "4am", could be one of the cruelest kiss-offs I've ever heard, if he means that reading their names, inscribed in their wedding band, bores him to sleep, or it could be one of the most plaintive expressions of helpless devotion, the hopeful juxtaposition of their names his last working mantra. "I'll call you from Vancouver just staring @ your picture til it's all that I can stand", goes "On Travelling", and again I don't know whether he means that the picture blocks everything but the woman out of his life, or that the picture blocks everything but the picture out of his life, and even the woman is powerless to penetrate the loneliness her existence has engendered. And the disarmingly sweet "Song of 27", which extrapolates from "On Travelling"'s meditation on distance to a love that time can't take away, either, dances with Everclear's "I am still living with your ghost" in my mind, leading me to dwell (wistfully, but probably unhealthily) on a love or two of mine that seem to exhibit this same immortality.
And so, although this is an album overflowing with bleak desperation and unshakable inertia, this week it is exactly what I need. It puts Richard Buckner in with Justin Currie, Mark Eitzel and David Steinhart, for me, as a chronicler of romantic disillusionment and disintegration, and in with Mark Hollis, Tori Amos and Stina Nordenstam as a defier of the gravity of silence, and along with the joys of discovering another writer who moves me as powerfully as those, and another album that reinforces my belief that music is the thing people are best at, Richard's particular muted rapture is the perfect antidote to my technology guilt. If there is enough painful truth in the smallest lives for revelations, then all these computers and wires are merely toys, and it doesn't much matter what I manage or fail to do with them. If there is enough music in a tiny human voice, then all we have to do is make sure they aren't drowned out. And if we stop being depressed, it only means we no longer care. There is a motor, too, spinning in my CD player, but this one, at least temporarily, I can think of no better use for.