Richard Buckner – Surrounded

Richard Buckner wants to shake this wandering troubadour lifestyle, really he does – the problem is that it’s in his blood. The long-running Americana-tinged folkie always seems to have a tale of woe to accompany his latest release – last time out it involved stolen cars and lost recordings. By his telling, Surrounded represents Buckner’s efforts to salvage the bones of a failed foray into short story writing. The change in routine ignited a spark leading to Buckner’s most vibrant work since The Hill, which for my money remains his high-water mark. Dig a bit deeper and there are two key similarities to that 2000 title which may explain the magic.

Both The Hill and Surrounded start with storytelling, the former a recrafting of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poems. Buckner’s own tales on Surrounded are similarly dark – at least his own protagonists are still alive, even if tormented by demons both internal and external. “And it was just like that/ A crowd broke through/ Somewhere outside/ Did they get to you?” he sings to open “When You Tell Me How It Is.” The precise nature of their conflict isn’t made clear, and that mystery pulls us in even closer. While Surrounded’s overall mood remains dour (and on the foreboding five-minute “Mood” even more elliptical), Buckner offers a hint of tenderness on “Go” whose narrator suggests, “We should go out sometime/ As long as we’re locked away.” For those succumbing to his spell Buckner’s lyric sheet offers “unsung lyrics” from his short stories, interspersed with the audible ones, which fill in some of the gaps. It’s ambitious stuff, and it succeeds on several levels.

But this is a musical excursion, not a staged reading. And just as Calexico provided a welcome twist to his arrangements on The Hill, Buckner has again enlisted an outside collaborator. While maintaining solid quality control, Buckner’s unadorned guitar and voice had begun to blend together on songs from recent releases. Enter producer Tucker Martine, who coincidentally also shaped the recent album from Thao Nguyen – another songwriter longing for a more stable existence but continually drawn back to the stage. Working independently from Buckner, Tucker adds enough multi-tracked vocals, guitars and various embellishments to brighten the corners. It’s all done with an economical indie sensibility, stopping well short of the polish on Buckner’s Austin-era country inflected albums.

For the first time in awhile, it feels like Richard Buckner has let another artist into his process. And it pays off big on Surrounded.

Richard Buckner