There is a tendency to split up Richard Buckner’s ouvre into two parts, the earlier more “country” era, and the later more “indie” era, with the transition occurring somewhere between his last album for MCA Since and his signing on with Merge for 2004’s Dents And Shells. I will admit to not being personally as familiar with the earlier work, having heard what I have of it probably only once via my Why Make Clocks/Fetal Pig bandmate Dan, who is responsible for turning me on to Richard Buckner in the first place. But there seems to still be a split between those who prefer the earlier records and those who appreciate more the 21st century Richard Buckner; a couple early reviews I saw for Our Blood hinted at the crusty old “return to form” meme, with one even declaring it his best since Devotion + Doubt. Personally I don’t understand this split. I think the open-minded listener can appreciate all that Buckner has offered up over the years and see the consistency and evolution in it. From what I’ve been able to tell, he hasn’t made a bad album yet and probably never will.
I quite like the more uptempo (though hardly upbeat) songs of Dents And Shells and Meadow, which seem to intentionally eschew intra-song dynamics for a kind of motorik feel that gives the vocals and decorative instrumental elements lots of space to stretch out — the pedal steel line introduced during the first verse of “A Chance Counsel” always comes to mind as an especially gorgeous example of this — while the less rhythmic, softer numbers like “Charmers” provide a contrast, the grassy rolling pastures alongside the highways of the faster songs. It makes for perfect music for driving the highways of northeast Iowa.
In an interesting headfake, the intro to the opening track “Traitor” starts out looking like another barnburner album-opener in the mode of “A Chance Cousel” or “Town” (“barnburner” being a very relative term in Buckner’s subdued catalog), but then the drums drop out, to return only intermittently in this song and then not be heard from again for the rest of the album. From then on, Our Blood places its emphasis firmly on the softer side of what was the appealing contrast presented on the previous Merge albums; the quick strum of “Town” returns for “Witness” and “Hindsight” but with only a few stray maraca or tambourine hits for percussive accompaniment.
Absent this song-to-song contrast or a driving rhythm section, all the Richard Buckner sonic signatures of recent albums are still here: his rich and slightly weary voice intimately right up front and center, an acoustic or sometimes electric guitar or occasionally an organ as the main chordal instrument, short melodic figures on twangy electric guitars, electric piano, and pedal steel flitting in and out in between the vocal lines. There’s a quality to the music on Our Blood that has been described as cinematic, and that can possibly be ascribed to Buckner’s having worked in the meantime on a score for a film that ended up never coming out. The instrumental “Ponder” especially sounds like it may have been intended for that score.
Buckner’s songs seldom if ever follow a conventional song structure or have immediately identifiable verses or choruses. Usually each verse-like section will go through multiple melodic stages, sometimes with so many changes away from the root that you wonder how the phrase will ever make it back around full circle for a repeat. This suits well his oblique style of lyrics, which involve both disconnected phrases and run-on sentences that slip through so many semantic layers that one can easily lose track of what’s going on, like in the writing of Faulkner or even Ferlinghetti. This is especially the case on “Gang”.
One aspect of Buckner’s lyrics that I’ve always found interesting, especially after Dan pointed it out to me, is the variations of phrasing, including discrepancies between how the lyrics are sung and how they appear in the included lyric sheet (which I believe all of his albums’ packaging include one) and how these variations seem to open up subtly different layers of meaning. For example in “Escape” you hear, “No one’s ending up with what they thought. They’d figured out: well, this is what they get. Cold and lost, close calls take their toll some days.” But if you’re following along in the booklet, you read: “No one’s ending up with what they thought they’d figured out. Well this is what they get, cold and lost. Close calls take their toll some days.”
Each song suggests a story, though what exactly the story is may take some investigation and still turn out to depend quite a bit on your own interpretation. Though quite a bit of these stories seem to take place at night, the music on Our Blood mostly has an early-morning feel, like the dew and sunrise following a long rollercoaster of an all-nighter, turning them into recollections. Of the stories, “Confessions” seems most easily understandable, seemingly recounting a return to one’s hometown after seeking fortune among “sellouts with someone to try, but nothing to spend” (who might also be the sort of characters that were referred to in “Charmers”).
It’s tempting to call Our Blood a less immediate album than those just before it, but I’m not sure such a statement holds up to scrutiny. Our Blood rewards different kinds of listening. As simply a chill album to put on, it’s readily enjoyable and consistent, and repeated spins reveal nuances in the instrumentation; and when you want something to really dig into, contemplate and engage with on a literary level, it provides many hours of emotions, images, and concepts to chew on. Even without the difficulties Richard Buckner had in making this album, it’s the kind of work that you can totally understand being five years in the making.