Buckner's last record, 2000's The Hill, was his most coherent and most highbrow, laden with poetic pretensions. The album's literary bent wasn't surprising since it was an adaptation of Edgar Lee Master's turn-of-the-century novel Spoon River Anthology, itself a work of dark Americana that collected obituaries and character sketches from a fictional Midwestern backwater that seemed unusually prone to death by stick thwacking and skull bashing.
While the singer/songwriter's fifth album, Impasse, is as cohesive melodically as The Hill was thematically, it's lighter in tone and much more listenable. It's the kind of record that succeeds first on musical terms, seamlessly playing through to an end that comes too soon. While still lyrically impenetrable, Impasse is pleasant and inviting, as Buckner loosens up both musically and existentially, settling into a dreamy indie rock soundscape that melds a quavering, cheap-sounding electric organ with skillfully placed acoustic ornamentation. Lyrically, Buckner mitigates his typical suppressed sense of recrimination and dread, content to settle for ironic self-knowledge rather than bitter, apocalyptic horror.
Seeming to sing from a wealth of hard-won experience, Buckner still addresses his listeners one at a time, in a first-person voice that commands attention. But what his narrator wants from the reproached is never quite clear. Perhaps for now it's enough to enjoy the music as it washes past the stony shores; you can worry about the shipwrecks later.