Ever get a promise from a rock song? No, not "We're gonna have ourselves a rock 'n' roll party tonite!" A quiet promise, a subtle one. A hint of something not quite there, of something waiting to be unearthed. The songwriter makes a promise, asks a question -- and, thrillingly, the song keeps the promise, answers the question.
On initial listens, singer/songwriter Richard Buckner's second album, Devotion & Doubt, is a promise in the making. The sometime San Franciscan's first release, Bloomed, came out on DejaDisc two years ago. It was a resolutely unadorned desert tableau of voice and guitar, uncompromising and stark, but overly literal, with a self-conscious writerliness about it. Since then, he's broadened his sound a bit and hooked up with MCA, from which he's being touted as one of the stronger voices of what's come to be called "alternative country." There's a lot of snarkiness and confusion about what constitutes the genre, but I offer a simple definition: country music that's too smart for Nashville, rock music that's too twangy for your average altrock station. Given those boundaries, I don't understand the sneers alternative country sometimes gets. By definition it has an edge to it: The people who make it know they're beating their heads against a commercial wall, and basically don't care.
So if you like the reigning Nashville stuff, you won't like Buckner: There's little that's sweet in it, nothing overfriendly or ingratiating, and he won't tell you what you want to hear. And if you like what's called modern music, you'll find him off-putting as well, 'cause there's a lot of acoustic guitar, country accouterments like pedal steel, and unironic lyrics sung straightforwardly over simple, if invariably pretty, melodies. No samples or electronica, pop or grunge. Buckner carries a slight, temperate sense of the fucked-up, desert-rat slack of Howe Gelb and his Giant Sand compatriots (some of whom play on Devotion & Doubt), but Buckner's grounding in traditional songwriting inoculates him against Gelb's psychedelic self-indulgence. When you see Buckner live, you're a bit surprised at how oversized he is: not hulking, just big, with a curtain of hair that falls over his face as he plays and a big burst of teeth when he smiles, which he does on occasion. He drifted into San Francisco some time ago, but drifted out again earlier this year.
His music is a construction of one voice and one guitar, though for his new album these are somewhat scaffolded with a clanky keyboard, a bit of drums, that pedal steel, or a mandolin. He's content to portray himself in unadventurous ways -- as the mournful lover, the bruised troubadour, the sleepy-voiced love man -- but when you get suspicious and start listening critically for triteness, you encounter almost shocking depth and emotional rigor; you realize that Buckner, without getting precious about it, feels that these patterns are the stuff of tradition, and can be used unapologetically if one's voice and sensibility are uncompromised enough.
Buckner's are. First, there're the arrangements: There's something serious and serene in the rumbling guitar solo in the first song, in the plinking piano that begins it, in the way the instrumentation evaporates for the song's climax. "Lil Wallet Picture" starts out with a classic country slide, and then just a breeze of acoustic guitar as Buckner's voice rolls in. There's a spooky harmonium on "On Travelling," and on the record's best track, "A Goodbye Rye," there's a swaggery, almost classic-rock guitar riff to set the thing off, and a bursting, sing-along chorus -- which, in what you eventually understand is a typical Bucknerian move, comes through only once. Other than that, the record's pretty, quiet, and a bit weird musically, with slight overtones of death and desolation -- a mildly more upbeat Tonight's the Night. Buckner's voice is laconic, bursting occasionally into lugubriousness; Devotion & Doubt is basically a cry-in-your-beer record, because that's what he's doing a lot of the time, given the record's slew of both breakups and healthy (or rather unhealthy) drinking.
Buckner also gains your interest by occluding the meaning of the songs with beatlike poesy and a few vocal idiosyncrasies. Buckner's singing, by turns pained and smooth, makes a lot of his lyrics impenetrable; his voice can be crushed into a whisper, expanded into a soft falsetto. Listen hard, and scraps of phrases come through: "detours and ambulance traps"; "this poured-out picker"; "once upon a blue/ thing or two "; "oh, the quiver and the quake"; "what I've done/ what I said I wouldn't do." They're interesting, but resist further decipherment or attempts to put the scraps in context. I had the advance CD for months and never could figure out the songs; the actual record thankfully provides the words. Once all the lyrics are available, the fragments cohere. The songs turn out to be a revelation, and complete Devotion & Doubt's promise.
"Lil Wallet Picture," for example, has the alluring chorus, "This stretch of 99/ That took so many lives/ One of them was mine." Buckner plays off the overtones of the time-honored highway-death song for a while before, in the last lines, reminding us that there's such a thing as emotional death as well (his departing girlfriend's U-Haul pulls away). Elsewhere, he essays a rough but alluring poetry that reads fine on the page but then comes alive when you hear him sing it: "Underspent and too young, too/ I came upon a picture of you"; "Tough-is-as-she-does/ Won't you slump on over and stir my shuffle down?"; "She had a meaty name and a Guild on the wall/ And a swagger." The songs almost always lack specifics but never seem generalized, and Buckner has a knack for responding to unspoken comments in a revelatory way. "We'll just end up disheveled," he sighs at one point -- certainly as bleak a sexual refusal as rock has ever produced.
The record is ringed with sadness, but there are other things at work here: Even when he's talking about love, there tends to be a tactile, and not that attractive, alcoholic tinge to it. Self-doubt and fatalism mark every song, these the products of a thoroughgoing sense of regret about ... well, about almost everything. A lot of the record's themes come together on "A Goodbye Rye," as good a song as I've heard in a while. The rollicking, chord-heavy beginning is a red herring, or maybe a front: In the song, Buckner falls back into his emotions, and comes up haggard. "A Goodbye Rye" seems to be about a failed liaison, one with hints of betrayal: "You know boredom breeds temptation in its wake/ But will you look at what temptation's done?" he sings plaintively. A backing ensemble thumps along, and a burnished slide and a folksy fiddle mark each section of the song. In that riveting chorus, the one that doesn't get repeated, he captures a pair of emotional outlaws on the far end of a bender:
We cheered away a goodbye rye
Then bled on down the road
But when the buzz was over, man
The last word, roared as an afterthought, anchors this soft but implacable work of art. Buckner's beatniky prose turns out to mean something: "But lies aside/ Honey, will I ride/ Along and through, and over you?" -- he's reminding us that after everything falls apart a haunting remains. It's a very old story, but it's what Devotion & Doubt is really about: deception and lust, the crash and the memory. Rock's ominous heart beats in weird places: It's here in the guise of a fucked-up anti-troubadour who reflexively reminds us that certain things -- life, a desperate kind of love, a great rock 'n' roll chorus -- can come around only once.