It's seldom a good thing when songwriters decide to indulge their literary pretensions and try to set the great American novel to music. For every Paul Kelly, who did a bang-up job back in 1989 with his interpretation of Raymond Carver's So Much Water So Close to Home, there's a portentous goofball like Pete Townshend, who has committed too many sins of pomposity to count (e.g., White City -- A Novel, The Iron Man, Psychoderelict, and the wretched short-story collection Horse's Neck). And don't forget Rosanne Cash, a fine artist and tunesmith whose wee set of short fiction, 1996's Bodies of Water, was an unreadable, exasperating bomb. Or Elvis Costello, whose The Juliet Letters was a career nadir worthy of even Lou Reed's worst missteps.
Then there's Richard Buckner, an itinerant singer/songwriter responsible for three albums -- Bloomed, Devotion + Doubt, Since -- that redefined the sound and vocabulary of altcountry rock and rock-tinged folk. Like Son Volt's Jay Farrar, Buckner has a dark, husky groan of a voice and writes obtuse, seemingly impenetrable songs teeming with subtle wordplay that only partially obscures the melancholy beneath. With The Hill Buckner has crafted a masterful and evocative interpretation of Edgar Lee Masters's The Spoon River Anthology, a set of small-town character studies published in 1915. A milestone in Buckner's evolution as a wordsmith, The Hill contains his most forthright lyrics, the eighteen songs (all but one named for citizens of the fictional town Spoon River) flowing as one richly aching portrait of romantic despair, tormented isolation, and devastating grief.
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The music, meanwhile, is as daring and adventurous as The Hill's ambitious concept. Abetted by his long-time producer/collaborator J.D. Foster and Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino, Buckner fuses acoustic folk-blues drone with avant-garde noise and arty random percussion. The disc is banded as one long song, with each sad tale melding into brief instrumental interludes that give the album the feel of a bizarro folk-rock opera. It has all the makings of a ponderous mess, yet Buckner pulls it off in ways that should humble high-brow dullards like Townshend and Reed.