atching an acoustic performance by Richard Buckner at Brooklyn’s Southpaw in late 2005, it was clear the seasoned folk artist was veering into new, clean territory. That night, “acoustic” simply meant alone. The resounding rings of his guitar plunged into the ear and invaded every corner of the dark venue, and his pieces sometimes rolled on for more than ten minutes. It was a far cry from his material on 1998’s Since and even 2004’s Dents and Shells, which contain my personal reasons for falling in love with folk and pursuing the work of both Buckner and his forepersons. That live performance was elegant and affecting in spite of the marked disinterest of the audience, who were ostensibly there for the Wrens.
Meadow is far different from the pretty messes of Buckner’s early work, something his recent live performances have foreshadowed. Quite soon after Buckner’s debut in the mid-90s with producer Lloyd Maines (Butch Hancock, Uncle Tupelo), his audience moved away from country and into the circles of indie folk. He might, then, be a male counterpart to Neko Case. But unlike Case, Buckner has ventured progressively farther into near-Springsteen avenues of composition. “Town,” Meadow’s opener, is a marked one-eighty that nonetheless captures the originality of Buckner’s voice and the lyrical tapestries he creates out of one-word song titles. Rhyming C&W traditions decorate much of these expressions, but on Meadow, they meander and mutter to the point of being negligible—the music comes first.
Buckner’s interest here is in a wallowing mouthful of atmosphere—dominant drums, throbbing guitar, and a fair amount of piano. This has always been the case, but the compositions are seamlessly edited and cleanly brought from instrument to recording. The strong, sure “Window” makes, along with its follower “Kingdom,” the crux of the album. The quick, precise drum work of “Kingdom” reverberates into distant crevices and creates, along with tinkling guitars and incidental vocal croons, an addictive, balladic little masterpiece. It couldn’t be anyone else, or anything other than folk, with Buckner’s voice involved, but it’s nonetheless a complete about-face—refreshing, cosmic, and yet oddly mainstream.
Buckner drops off in breathy acquiescence at the end of practically every line, a signature move that complements the confidence of the full-bodied piano chords and almost inaudibly low bass lines throughout the album, especially on “Numbered.” The elements could make for one sad, dull affair—any of his albums could—but Buckner utilizes them with experience and a uniformity of vision. When, in certain ways, an album “all sounds the same,” a seasoned listener begins to observe the delicacies and details. On the final acoustic number “The Tether and the Tie,” that plugged-in bass lingers like a heartbeat: the charged parts never quite desist. The atmosphere created by the instruments is merely the room in which the words are communicated, but the room itself is as spectacular as the speaker (and he decorated it himself).