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Our Storms Are Numbered
Richard Buckner: Impasse
Richard Buckner's Devotion + Doubt was my favorite 1997 album of 1998. He had a 1998 album in 1998, too, followed by a 1995 album in 1999, and a 1996 album in 2002. And a 2000 album of sorts in 2000, except that instead of writing words for it he set a bunch of stuff from Spoon River Anthology to music, and instead of playing his own instruments he recruited Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico, two talented musicians whose style and presence I happen to personally find just fractionally less distasteful than those two SNL characters in A Night at the Roxbury. So I feel like it is not entirely unreasonable of me to think that Richard owes us another real album, where by "real" I mean one with some semblance of Devotion + Doubt's ambition and undiluted identity. Ideally, I think, I'd like him to lock himself up at home for a few months, alone or maybe just with his immediate family, and produce something a little frightening. In fact, after the dreary mess Stina Nordenstam allowed her last album to become, and Del Amitri's profoundly charmless attempt to kick themselves into the new century, and how bored I've yet to stop feeling while listening to Lost in Space (not to mention all the ways Mark Eitzel has found to kill time since Songs of Love), I find myself, quite unjustifiably, wanting Impasse to re-redeem the entire concept of quietly terrifying intensity. Tiny wisps of guitar, perhaps, dispersed even by breath. Shards of pain, or dismay, or sudden paralyzing certainty. It's been a magnificent year in music, for me, but a rather relentlessly bold and colorful one, and as the air here begins murmuring about winter, I want something seasonal, something simultaneously cryptic and pellucid. Low and Tori are working with full arrangements, this time, but maybe Richard can take on some of their old responsibilities. Fifteen tracks, but barely more than half an hour: how little noise could he contrive to make?
The physical signs are mostly good. I don't know whose job it should have been to talk him out of the Motörhead-ish title font, but at least the cover art is murky and monochromatic, Buckner's name in tiny white letters floating far apart (a style invented by some movie-credits designer, for I wish I could remember what). The song titles are strange, as if he's plucked bits (not even phrases but strings, dangling punctuation and all) from the middle of some longer text. But the credits claim he produced and played everything except drums himself, and it so happens that his wife is a drummer. There's some sort of essay in the booklet. I put the album on.
The first song begins with some acoustic guitar and Richard's familiar if-all-you-have-is-melisma-everything-looks-like-grace-notes delivery. The album I wanted never comes anywhere close to materializing. "Grace-I'd-said-I'd-known:" (trailing punctuation will make these all read strangely in sentences; let the quotation marks guide you) barely lasts past a minute and a half, but there's nothing particularly fragile about it, and pinging vibraphone (marimba?) and sighing harmonica (accordion?) allude to more complexity, not less. "born into giving it up," starts with a snarly, Chris Whitley-ish guitar, and settles into a solidly unhurried groove buoyed by humming keyboards. "hoping wishers never lose," speeds up, and almost lets a rock chorus coalesce. "(loaded @ the wrong door," is sinuous and chiming, "(a year ahead)...& a light" wades in with drum crunch and guitar twang. "put on what you wanna" is nearly a folk lament, and although it skids off into weird noises for a bit at the end, the short Mark Kozelek-ish instrumental "a shift" wrenches the proceedings back on course, and "...& the clouds've lied" is a soothing lullaby, or would be if it weren't for the strange growly bass sound. "stumble down," toys with a spaghetti-western guitar hook, but ultimately undermines any genre aspirations with rhythmic reticence and an unsteady vocal. Penny's drums come back for the engaging "count me in on this one!", which plays alt-country-derived mainstream straight enough to qualify for a Gilmore Girls cameo. The full complement of guitar noises duel for control of "dusty from the talk,", but "were you tried & not as tough" sorts them out. "impasse:" (at least the colon isn't in the album name) is a minute-long keyboard instrumental that you could transfer intact to a Mary Timony album, and "stutterstep" is an abbreviated anthology of goodbye noises, but "I know what I knew,", the last proper track, combines all preceding elements into an anxious, simmering threat. This album is not quiet, and by Buckner's standards, not even spare.
It's also yet another album that is going to make my always-difficult year-end best-of list an even more obsessive and solipsistic exercise this year than it is by definition. Never mind what I wanted this album to sound like, I'm mesmerized by what it does. Finding ways for minimalism to progress, if the unscientific survey of bands I like who have tried it is at all representative, is extremely hard. Low are the obvious success-story for me, and I give Fugazi credit for Repeater even though they followed it with a whole decade I'd just as soon forget, and Billy Bragg credit for Don't Try This at Home even though it now seems to have been just a momentary intersection of his and my divergent paths. Mary Timony and Christine Fellows found ways, too. But for me Mark and Stina didn't, Lisa Loeb and Suzanne Vega didn't, Patty Griffin didn't, Mecca Normal and Sleater-Kinney haven't, the Mountain Goats and the Clientele haven't really tried. Beth Nielsen Chapman, Tori Amos and Jewel all found ways forward that suggested they'd never really been minimalists to begin with. And maybe some of those problems were more intractable than Richard Buckner's, since on one level his "solution" isn't much more complicated than setting Mary Timony-ish song structures in Mark Kozelek's arrangements, but good ideas can be simple. For me this album hovers exactly at an event horizon, refusing to slide backwards into dull still-life stasis or forward into disposably jangly folk-pop. Pop glee and rock pomp always seem imminent, but never actually appear, and the state of constant anticipation this dynamic keeps me in turns out to be ideal for paying attention to the quirks and turns the music substitutes every time I expect something else. This is one of the lost records Nick Drake never made, or Richard Shindell crossed with Jeff Buckley, or what Chris Whitley might have done without such deep blues roots, Richard Thompson without folk stature and guitar virtuosity as crutches, Steve Earle without prison or drink.
But that's only why I enjoy listening to this. The reason I think it's important, and maybe Great, is something else. The essay in the booklet isn't an essay, and the titles aren't random. The lyrics to this album are actually a single long narrative, written out in prose in the booklet, and the "titles" of the tracks are merely the next words in the story after each track index. The musical sense that Richard is finding clever ways to rearrange and recombine a limited number of devices is exactly apropos, following the emotions and characters in the story as their conditions and convictions shift and morph. Lots of albums have told album-length stories, but Impasse is the only one I can think of in which the narrative is not chaptered by song. This is a gimmick, admittedly, but one bound to be particularly effective on those of us who already want albums, not songs, to be music's atomic unit.
And there is, to be clear, a big catch in this gimmick. The story is written in a pervasively fragmentary style, so the effect isn't nearly as arbitrary or jarring as you might be imagining, or as it would be to take an equivalent-length passage out of Dickens or Hawthorne and simply sing through the words without regard to any correspondence between cadence and sense. These words were written to be sung this way, and at least at the line-by-line level, work along the contours of the music more often than against them. If the booklet had been formatted in standard lyric fashion, and the songs given normal titles, it's quite possible that nobody would have perceived the texts as contiguous.
But this is, like observing that The Blair Witch Project wouldn't have been a tenth as scary with a Steadicam and proper lighting, crashingly inarguable and just as irrelevant. The record claims to be a single narrative arbitrarily apportioned among the songs, and it is the audacity of the claim, not its inevitability, that fascinates me. Is the writing stream-of-conscious nonsense or astonishing poetry? You'll have to make this call for yourself, even more subjectively than usual, but I'll tell you some of the factors that influence my decision, in case they help with yours. For one, although the logic of any isolated sentence here tends to be elusive, the piece is done with a rigorous overall stylistic consistency, which to me is sufficient indication that Richard is in control of it. I haven't tried to deduce a formal alternate grammar, but the key underlying principle seems to entail never letting verbs resolve themselves in the expected way. They're given deliberately unaccustomed qualifiers and objects ("Born into giving it up", "a light is crushin' through", "swollen off in distances"); phrases execute back-flips in mid-step ("Spend that trowel on a missing vane", "Hands were had, nests were sold, but, that was just the floor-so-far", "It traded out the mirror until the night was gone"); nouns that might add clarity are methodically sidestepped ("I was landing just in time, careful to call out just in case", "Down @ the ole movin'-on & slowin'-down, it was fine just to lose", "Will you see when to fade, slowing to a run, known, & led along?"); exhortations writhe like double-acrostic clues ("Check that spun-out flagging down (coming on as tunnels do)!", "Shadows: to the other side! Stumblers: to the door!", "Tremble-to-the-countryside: 'Put the rip-offs to an end!'"). But string these individually impenetrable phrases together, and they begin to assemble into insights. "You finally lanced the trouble down. But, which of us goes under?": the apparent solutions to problems may only work by creating new ones, or masking causes. "The windows shook & showed us out, but there was nothing new to try": the metaphors for experience, throughout, are violent weather, constant and irresistible storms, with no good prize for surviving. "Will you stay (now) until the fits are fine?": stay-or-go lurks in every question, second-guessed or third-, repeatedly asking what pain you're willing to suffer, to what end, and how you distinguish between investment and loss.
And if the phrases seem a little like Finnegan's Wake at first, in the end I think they're almost the opposite, muddled meaning rendered as clearly as inadequate words allow, rather than simple experience pathologically obfuscated. There is a relationship story at the core of all this, of course, and real relationship stories, presented according to their own parameters and constraints, are intricate by virtue of the intricacy of actual people. Three letters, set off at the beginning, middle and end, evoke Griffin and Sabine, but maybe-fictional lovers will never be a tenth as trying as lovers you actually meet and then have to figure out if you can live with. One person's own conflicts are hard enough to untangle; untangling two people's at once is heart surgery. I won't tell you how it ends. I won't even tell you if it ends. But one of the reasons to care, I think, is that reconciling the neuroses of two people at once is not the same as reconciling each of them, separately, and then signing two now-perfectly-adjusted people up for a quick blood test and twenty minutes with a justice of the peace. It is possible, however difficult, for two people to fabricate mutual solutions that neither person could sustain for themselves, by themselves. Arguably I have just defined Romance. The love stories I believe, and feel, are the ones that culminate in understandings and dilemmas, not sunsets and embraces: Kristin Scott Thomas walking away in Random Hearts, Ben Affleck backing out of the room in Chasing Amy, Jessica and Helen gossiping in Kissing Jessica Stein, violence in Betty Blue and The Razor's Edge, Harold surviving Maude, Brian in the street, even the glitch about marriage in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The truest romances are so reliably tragic it's tempting to think that romantic tragedy is axiomatic. But that's wrong, too, and to me the ending I'm not going to tell you about suggests exactly what it denies. Yes, we give each other discoveries about ourselves, which is most courageous (and/or perverse) when the truths reveal ways in which the discovered selves are incompatible. But the things we learn about ourselves are never as immutable or complete as we think. The ways in which we seem incompatible may turn out to be shared fears more than mutual enmity. Any relationship you aren't scared of, for that matter, you probably aren't giving a chance. They're supposed to be hard, otherwise what are they worth? The more hopeless, perhaps, the better. We may be most in love as we say goodbye. We form the words of the farewell, not scared of the step we're taking, not scared of loneliness. Loneliness is nothing if not safe, after all. But goodbye is not the risk, failed goodbye is the risk. We don't fear loss, we fear dependence. We are not afraid of walking away, as a last resort. Last resorts, after all, require neither judgment nor apology. What we fear, what we dream of with exquisite terror, is that walking away will prove impossible precisely when it becomes necessary. We fear exactly what we hope to learn. We fear that enlightenment devolves to nihilism. We fear that the examined life is just as wretched, and we should really have spent more time playing video games. We fear that these searing, heartbreaking, desperate records will finally swallow us. And we will keep fearing them, over and ecstatically over, until they do.
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