The wanderer above the mists

Richard Buckner's "Devotion & Doubt" is deserving of both.

By Sarah Vowell
March 15, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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R ichard Buckner's never at home and he's always alone, even with someone he loves. So mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be Buckner. But if they
grow up to be his mechanic or his bartender or his lawyer or something, I'm
thinking they'll do just fine. The folk-singing, hard-traveling,
whiskey-drinking divorcé's moving new album, "Devotion & Doubt" (MCA), is
short on the former and long on the latter, filled with glass-half-empty
laments of faded love.

Or maybe lament's not the word. These are beautiful barstool tales, the
kind I imagine men tell one another to score a little low-key masculine
sympathy. When Buckner calls one of his loveliest songs "Home," it's a dummy
title, twisted by the words that precede it: "The one place I want to be/Anywhere but home." Just as you're wondering how any self-respecting female
could fall for an undependable drifter like this, he lets you hear how that
woman waiting at home got seduced in the first place. "4AM," a painfully
tender tribute to desire, finds him out on the lonesome road, pledging to
her, "I could be there by breakfast." And even though you wish she had
call waiting so you could warn her off (this one's trouble!), it's a nice little break
from his self-absorption.


Other musicians back up Buckner's acoustic guitar, most notably Lloyd Maines
playing a wonderfully wistful pedal steel. But this is no band. All the
music around Buckner just melts into his voice, which is mysterious and
strange. He has this way of whispering that makes you lean into the sound,
that makes you work at not just listening, but at hearing itself. His
passion can sound unsure, which is to say, real. He wavers his words in a
kind of homegrown vibrato that's jarring and suspenseful; you never know if
he's going to hit the note he's aiming for, and neither does he. Devotion
and doubt are more than his themes, they're his method. His
singer-songwriter earnestness continually conflicts with the questions he
asks every phrase. In "Ed's Song" he edges into the claim that "for once
devotion is enough" as if trying to convince himself more than the listener.

Some rock 'n' roll songs about loneliness sabotage themselves. The singer
croons of solitude while the sounds of solidarity crash around him. But the
accompanying players here are so subtle and so erased by Buckner's
autobiographical scribblings that the entire record might as well have taken place
inside his head. That's why his most moving song is the a cappella "Fater."
Buckner's inflection has a slight Appalachian drawl as he moans, from his
very gut, "Leave and travel well/Leave yourself and live to tell." But
there are other echoes than the mountains in those words, all of them
profoundly American: the true blues of slave songs, the maxims of Emerson
("Whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist"), "On the Road," the sad
yodel of Eddy Arnold's "Cattle Call."

Richard Buckner is an unsettled man, and as such, he has the right to be
romanticized in his homeland. That's the way we work. As a woman, I'd
prefer to hear his ex-wife's side of the breakup. I get the feeling she's
been done wrong. As an American, I'm almost embarrassed of the pull words
like "Leave and travel well" have on my heart. And hearing Buckner sing them,
I forget about life -- its little betrayals, injustices, disappointments -- and
get swept away by art.


"Fater" is the voice to one of my favorite paintings, Caspar David
Friedrich's "The Wanderer above the Mists." Technically, it's a German
canvas, but the jagged landscape lorded over by a solitary,
black-clad figure has always struck me as quintessentially American, more
Monument Valley than Hitler's playground. The man in the picture literally
stands alone, his back to us, surveying a vast, dramatic world. I always saw
him as a role model, as a picture of self-reliance in the old-fashioned
cowboy sense. Part of me still does, another part of me just wonders who
packed his lunch. Listening to "Fater's" fare-thee-well, I can't help but
put Richard Buckner's face on the man, can't help but wonder when he'll
want to go back home. I'd like to think he's standing there, looking
on all those mountains, and singing the last song on his sad album, "Song of
27," where he makes corny phrases like this one seem true: "On nights like
this/My hope returns."

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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