Funny thing about lauded debuts — such as Bloomed, the world’s 1994 introduction to the haunting songcraft of Richard Buckner — they’re still debuts. Buckner’s first solo set is still one of his very best, treating debilitating loneliness and depression with clear-eyed sincerity. His full and expressive baritone wraps around couplets that equal those of the great Townes Van Zandt, a comparison that rears its head pretty much every time Bloomed is discussed. It isn’t Buckner’s only great record, but it may well be his most roundly beloved.
But for this ambitious and restless songwriter, his first album is one he’d rather forget. To listeners, Bloomed may come off as a collection of folk gems. To Buckner, it remains the tentative first step on a journey that has moved far past that album’s familiar Americana touchstones. So while the record was recently reissued by Durham, North Carolina’s Merge Records, part of a series commemorating the imprint’s 25th anniversary, Buckner hasn’t revisited it.
What: Richard Buckner
Where: Columbia Museum of Art, 1515 Main St.
When: Thursday, July 10; doors at 7 p.m., show at 7:30 p.m.
With: Dylan Dickerson and Trey Murphy
More Info: columbiamuseum.org
“I not only have not reassessed it, I’ve been trying to forget it,” he admits, forced to consider the album, which he cut in Austin, Texas, with a few local musicians. “It was my first record. It was my first kind of collection of songs that I had to make a record, and I felt like I wanted to put out. I record mostly at home now, so it isn’t the kind of record that I would make again. I’m glad I made it, and I’m glad I had musicians on it back then. But it’s something that’s kind of out of my sphere now, the sound of it and the songs themselves.”
To his point, it is rather strange to examine Bloomed in the light of Buckner’s recent releases. Musically, the album leans on folk tradition more than it tweaks it. The Dobro licks on “Daisychain” blaze with fiery passion, and the harmonica peels that open “Surprise, AZ” spin pastoral grandeur from thin caterwauls — feats accomplished many times before and since. Buckner’s words, grounded concretely into scenes both romantic and tragic, are camped safely within familiar tropes. “Put your arms around me, dear / And pull your mouth up to mine,” he intones during the opening “Blue and Wonder,” breathing new life into a familiar sentiment by the sheer force of his broken feelings.
Surrounded, released by Merge last year, stakes out a more singular aesthetic. A subtle refinement of the style Buckner emerged with on 2011’s Our Blood, then his first album in five years, the album is both arresting and hypnotic. Crisp acoustic and electric guitars tangle through loops and patterns that hook ears readily and then refuse to let go. Rich accoutrements — warming accordion, dense synthesizers, percussive noise — further fill out an atmosphere that is equally comforting and foreboding. This sound lends ethereal power to impressionistic ruminations that deconstruct the same wrenching heartache that stoked Bloomed, seeking self-awareness rather than simple catharsis.
These albums come from wildly different eras in Buckner’s career, but their contrasts embody the varied results that he craves. When he approached Surrounded, he packed up the bulk of the instruments he used on Our Blood, stashing them in an attic and proceeding with a less familiar set. Intentionally shifting his variables keeps Buckner fresh.
“What I like to have happen when I finish a project or a record is to come away with a new understanding or a new kind of thirst for going about the making of records,” he says. “Giving myself handicaps like that makes things happen that I couldn’t control.”
Of late, Buckner has been feeding his hunger for variety out on the road, supplementing his regular club dates with frequent living room shows. Households agree to host him, and he plays an acoustic set for 40 or so guests.
“[Those shows may] influence the way I’m going to make my next record,” he offers. “I’m maybe going to step back from just recording songs as I write them . . . redoing the arrangements and doing different versions of songs.”
From his first record to now, Buckner has always been willing to throw out tested techniques and chase new ideas. Twenty years on, it’s what makes him so compelling.
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