Beautiful, Beautiful Suffering

If the album's title, Since, hints at something in the past (Buckner has mentioned his divorce as a turning point), the record is certainly not an account of a recovery. Rather, it picks at the scabs of a crushing emotional wound.

If you can get past the first song on Richard Buckner's Since, you'll never turn back.

It's not a bad song. In fact, it's quite good -- moody, portentous, bitter. But it's tough and dark; Buckner's grumbling, hearty whisper leads to a bitter bellow, the sound of a heart scraped and hollowed out. "Believe me believer," Buckner warns. "I've seen your run and I'm gonna raze your faith until the vein is done and dry."

The thick and ominous guitar-work underlying the tune isn't any easier to deal with, recalling the powerful way Richard Thompson's intricate fretwork underlined the huge emotional pit -- the chasm between broken hearts -- at the heart of Thompson's all-time ruined-relationship classic Shoot Out the Lights.

The delicate opening of "Faithful Shooter," then, which follows "Believer," is pure, pretty and inviting, a genuine acoustic reward for engaging in the process.

And listening to Buckner is a process. Just try digging through the booklet of lyrics, which meshes the songs together in a rambling, quasi-poetic narrative somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan's indecipherable novel "Tarantula." Without the lyric book, Buckner's keening, swooping delivery renders many lines unintelligible.

But the emotion behind the lines is evident enough to nurse you through. The words seem mere carriers for sorrow, pain, anger, even optimism, dredged up from a deep, subconscious place and sent on a crazy flight-path.

If the lyrics lack the solidity and coherence that Dylan has in spades -- still with enough room for interpretation to fuel a hundred books and masters-degree theses -- the threadbare emotion and untooled beauty of Buckner's work suggests that this is as close as he can get to a pure, personal truth. Rendering what he feels he's been through in more clear, specific terms would simply be too much. Or maybe it wouldn't be true enough to the way he sees himself and to the introspective world he lives in.

In "Lucky Buzz," the narrator (one is tempted to assume it is Buckner himself) recalls a lover's rationalization of a turbulent relationship: "She said, 'Storms like these (ones like us) never live alone (never get enough). So many like us just burn & run. But, we're the lucky ones, yeah, but we're the lucky ones.' " The cynical edge is in his intonation, the heart of the song crusted on the multi-layered, country-inflected guitar-lines, with pedal-steel and harmonium underlying.

If the album's title, Since, hints at something in the past (Buckner has mentioned his divorce as a turning point), the record is certainly not an account of a recovery. Rather, it picks at the scabs of a crushing emotional wound. Still, he has his moments of strength (or clear-thinking, anyway): On "Jewelbomb," he sings, "Hasn't it always seemed to be the truth that lays us down? Well, the truth is (tonight) I truly want you, but I'll still slip away somehow."

But moments later he's singing, "I know we've all had our visions, but, we've been moonless too." Try to work that one out. Moments of clarity are scattered through the record, but most of it is a manic-depressive mass of lurching vocals and Son Voltesque country rock. In a good way.

J.D. Foster, Buckner's discriminating songwriting partner, producer and collaborator, has assembled a strong, sensitive band to back these crumpled country tunes, including vocalist Syd Straw (the Golden Palominos and a couple of smart solo records), guitarist Dave Schramm (the Schramms, Yo La Tengo) and drummer John McEntire (Tortoise, the Sea And Cake). Their sure playing grounds the record, holding Buckner's voice and sonorous mannerisms in place, adding warmth and tunefulness.

A while ago I reviewed Buckner's live show. He seemed out-of-sorts and distracted from where I stood in the back of the theater. Seeing him alone onstage, clutching his acoustic guitar, made me uncomfortable. His voice was throttled, then bursting, melodic lines forming and dissipating as soon as they'd appeared.

I wonder now, if I had known more about him then, had spent more time with this record, if I wouldn't have been front and center, watching his face for clues, looking for meaning in the convulsive hope buried deep in his baritone grumble. Buckner has engaged me finally, and sometimes I feel as though I've lost myself in this contemplative, painful, wonderful record.