Richard Buckner's new album, The Hill, is as instantly recognizable as his music: It's bleak, poignant and packs an understated emotional wallop that seems to reveal new depth and meaning with each spin. Which is slightly odd, since the lyrics aren't his, but those of turn-of-the-century American poet Edgar Lee Masters, whose 1915 collection Spoon River Anthology Buckner is said to have discovered in a bookstore, then decided to put to music. Masters's book is a collection of 244 "epitaphs" of departed citizens from the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois, and it isn't surprising that Buckner would gravitate toward them. The underlying tone of the poems, a sort of Gothic Americana, is one that Buckner's best music frequently evokes. So the marriage of poet and singer is fortuitous: Buckner's voice is a fitting proxy for the dreariness of lives cut short by circumstance or tragedy.
Though most of the eighteen selections (which run together as a single track) recount the ominous cruelty of nineteenth-century life, it is the occasional vivid flash of life's richness, recalled from beyond the grave, that makes listening to The Hill such an arresting experience. These moments creep up unexpectedly and owe their forcefulness to the third element at play here, the cello and bass accompaniment of Buckner's frequent collaborators, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico. Nowhere is the album's essence better illustrated than in the hauntingly crafted "Elizabeth Childers," which appears at about the 11:00 mark of the disc. The voice is that of a woman who laments the death of the infant she died giving birth to, first allowing herself to wonder about the child's life ("And then your children, oh, what might they be?") before concluding, to the accompaniment of a heartbreaking cello strain, that "Death is better than life" and quietly fading away.
Though Masters's poems, unfortunately, are not included in the album's liner notes, his entire Spoon River collection is posted online at www.boondocksnet.com/masters/spoonriver.html. For those who fall under The Hill's spell, it is well worth looking them up. They are a crucial part of an album that is as pure a distillation of Richard Buckner as there is likely to be.
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