Buckner’s Surrounded (Album Review)

Buckner has perfected a shaken rosebush sound–all at once moving, woody, thorny, and petaled in difficult beauty.  His album, Surrounded, attests to his remarkable virtues as a singer-songwriter.  But his virtues are not easy to appreciate; he offers no ease of access to them. The melodies of the songs on the album are lovely, but they exist more as traceries than as simple single lines, they are densely structured and closely knit–there are few big, dramatic chord changes, few reaches for the immediate, call it the hummable.  You might deem the melodies ruminative–but that should not suggest the bucolic or the pastoral:  they are fiercely ruminative, the rumination determined not to spare the ruminator or the ruminated topic or the listener–intense, brooding ruminations.

 

Perhaps the best way to understand the difficulty of Buckner is to consider the writing process that produced the songs on the album.  The nine songs are built from the text of five prose vignettes.  (The album liner supplies these.)  The vignettes are numbered, and their text looks a little like the text of old New Testaments–some of the words are in black, the words that become lyrics of the songs, and other are in read, the words that are part of the vignettes but not themselves lyrics of the songs.  There are also words in green bold face, the words that serve as the titles of the songs.  So each song is a complicated distillation of a vignette or of some portion of a vignette.  For illustration, the opening section of the first vignette is:

[Those static arrangements have led you to attempt a rest, but] you just won’t lie down.  Even closing your eyes, you can’t let it go, surrounded inside.

The words in brackets are the words printed in red.  The other words are the opening lyrics of the first song, “Surrounded”, whose title is the bold-faced word.  The vignette continues:

Leave it alone.  You don’t get it back [by] undoing the scenes [that] you can’t explain, whatever [it is that] you dream that you’ve buried away.

It seems like you’re there as someone removed [of the proof, then returned to the pride] and [abandoned with others] left in their place with nothing to do, [still] bound to the switch.  [But], railing again at the thought of the fight for well-earned dissent (undeserved at the time, as you’ve been shown), the motion has gone a shade of the night, only leading you on.

Before I say much more about the process of building songs this way, it is worth pausing to consider the vignette itself, independent of the song that Buckner scries within it.  Anyone who knows Bucker’s recording history and who has reflected on the character of his lyrics, knows that they are elliptical exercises, worse even than the prophecies of the Oracle at Delphi.  Buckner does not speak but conceals, gives signs, hints, suggestions.  But he won’t come clean.  Early songs were built around an implied but never actually used word (“Blue and Wonder”):

And what’s that word:
I forget sometimes
It’s the one that means
The love has left your eyes?

Bucker never actually supplies that word.  He leaves the reader wondering (perhaps a deliberate pun in the title of the song), since there is not a single English word with that exact meaning, or none I can think of.  (Maybe I have forgotten it too?)  Part of the artistry here is that by claiming that there is such a word but that he has forgotten it, Buckner supplies that sense of familiarity with everyday tragedies that we all have, even if we would like to forget it.  But Buckner always cares more to bring us around to a cold plunge into a familiar but uncomfortable reality than about telling us about such realities. That continues here:  this vignette never really tells us, in so many words, about what surrounds the narrator–it instead surrounds us itself, won’t let us rest.  What does it mean?  Something has been done, something undone, something buried, something dissented from.  But what?  Several of the sentences have a murky grammatical structure, stringing the reader from word to word without the benefit of creating any clear lexical expectation.  You find yourself at the period, stopping. but only then, if at all, having any sense of where you have been.  This is clearly deliberate–not a failure, but a success of art.  It bears comparisons with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and with, say, Claire Lispector.

The hollow at the heart of the vignette deepens in the song Buckner finds in the vignette.  (The relationship between the generating vignettes and the generated songs varies in each case.  “Surrounded” is perhaps the song that most fully preserves its generating vignette.)  Consider the lyrics.

You just won’t lie down
Even closing your eyes
You can’t let it go
Surrounded inside

Leave it alone
You don’t get it back
Undoing the scenes
You can’t get explain
Whatever you dream

That you buried away
It seems like you’re there
As someone removed
And left in their place
With nothing to do

Bound to the switch
Railing again
At the thought of the fight
For well-earned dissent
Undeserved at the time

As you’ve been shown
The motion has gone
A shade of the night
Only leading you on

There is no straightforward verse/chorus structure here exactly.  There are no rhymes.  But it is far from formless.  The words ingather around whatever it is that is missing from the lyrics, some skeleton key word or phrase that would allow escape.  The words create claustrophobia, crowd densely around.  No escape offered, the lyrics end in stasis, the only hope (?) a shade of the night–a grayer black, a ghost? both?–that offers to lead you–only you?–on.  But is that an offer of anything more than empty change?Substituting one siege for another?  Railing, fighting, dissenting get us nothing deserved.

Buckner finger-picks insistently, weaving the lyrics through the pattern.  His vocal expression gives little away–the words matter, the delivery is not inflectionless.  But the singing reveals mainly the intensity of the self-questioning, of the restlessness of the desire for explanation, the restlessness full stop.

Perhaps nothing more thematizes this song, this album, and Buckner’s career, than his grappling with a wide-eyed sleeplessness, physical and psychological.  In Emerson’s essay, “Experience”, Emerson bemoans not just the death of his son, Waldo, but also, and even more intently, he bemoans the fact that he cannot fully realize Waldo’s death, concretize it into a current circumstance of his life.  He writes

In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate, –no more.  I cannot get it nearer to me…[I]t does not touch me; something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off and leaves no scar.  It was caducous.  I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.

Buckner lives out a kind of nepsis; he paces the walls while the rest of us sleep.  He spends his nights inquiring up and down, tiring his animal eyes and the eyes of his mind.  But he cannot sleep.  He cannot bring the things that move him–those that calm him, those that grieve him, those he has loved and those he has lost, –he cannot bring them nearer to him.  They have done what they have done and he and they have moved on, no lesson surely learnt.  Everything touches him but nothing touches him:  everything slides away, led on by a shade of the night.  Life itself proves caducous.  Dream delivers him to dream, and there is no end to illusion.  –How can we hold onto lives that flux like water, running out of our clutches, leaving behind only trails of tears?  How can we step into real nature–not just as observers, pacers of the wall, but as bodily entrants into reality itself?  Our skin seems sometimes to get in between us and the world, making our grasp of things gloved, mediated, distant.  Sleep comes to seem like an acceptance, a yielding to dreams, a conniving at agreeable illusions.  Buckner will not yield.  He remains awake in the inextricable darkness.

The sheer intensity of Buckner’s refusal of sleep can overwhelm the listener.  Buckner is determined to exhaust exhaustion.  He is bound to the switch.  How can art arrest life, incarcerate it? That is a question that will keep you up nights.  Perhaps there is a confusion in it, as perhaps there is a confusion in Emerson’s grievance about grief–but, even if there is, it is a confusion we all find ourselves in eventually.  What we want nearer we can get only so near, and no more.  Nothing we care about seems capable of being both ours and other.  Everything eventually sees or saws, settling in one place or another, wholly ours and so not of interest, or wholly other and so out of reach.

Buckner always brings Emerson to mind for me.  That is because each man devotes himself to what I call, if you will excuse the term, a phenomenology of moods.  Each is more interested in finding a way to capture a mood than he is in capturing the object or scene or whatever it might be that creates the mood.  (One of the songs on Surrounded is, fittingly, “Mood”.)  Each takes mood itself to be his ‘object’.  This, I take it, helps to explain what I have called the hollowness of the lyrics, the fact that something seems always to be left out, left up to us to supply, if it is supplied at all.  –The fascination with mood has developed over Buckner’s career.  You find it on early albums, but usually as a bit or a piece of a song, not as the song itself.  As he has continued to record, the fascination has deepened.  Now, the songs are often fogs of mood, obscuring all non-moody objects, and leaving us with only the fog itself as a subject of attention.  No doubt to some this seems like willful obscurantism–but that is true only of those who cannot bring themselves to focus on the fog, to see that it is worthy of attention, despite its shifty, ephemeral nature, despite the fact that it seems always to recede just as we lean in to study it.

Buckner’s problem (and, so, not his willful obscurity) is how to bring into focus the very stuff that we take to soften or blur our focus, to hinder our gaze.  The things it is hard to see from up close, because they are often best visible in the distance.  (Emerson has his own version of this problem.)  I suspect that Buckner’s method of composition, the creating of the vignette, then the subtracting from it until the lyric emerges, is itself driven by his problem.  The vignette captures the mood, but does so in a way that threatens to solidify it, to make it too object-like.  Subtracting to find the lyric de-objectifies the mood, as does adding the music, the melody.  Buckner captures the mood by capturing us in it, by getting us to find ourselves inside it, instead of standing over and above it, outside it.  We come to know the fog by learning how to see it, and to see in it, as best we can.  Buckner’s pursuit of mood creates the strange mix of determinacy and indeterminacy in his lyrics, the combining of sketchy personal presences with carefully delineated emotional detail.  The songs are scenescapes of free-floating emotional disturbances.

“Surrounded” is one of the best of the songs on the album; but there are no weak songs.  There are deeply lovely songs, like the unanswered mystery of “Beautiful Question”.  There’s the trembling demon seance of “Mood”.  The album ends with a transcendental take on a symbol of the temporary, “Lean-To”.

Buckner is a songwriter of real brilliance.  His songs are exercises of that brilliance, a force creating its appropriate expression.  These are not songs that wear what makes them so wonderful on their sleeves.  They require time, frequentation, serious thinking.  Thoreau once remarked that books must be read as deliberately as they are written.  These songs must be listened to as deliberately as they were composed.  Buckner wears himself out.  He wears his listener out.  And that, odd as it may be to put it this way, is part of the point:  what Buckner is doing is demanding.

Whistling for Your Thoughts: Thoreau (Walden Chapter 12)

Let me see; where was I? Methinks I was nearly in this frame of mind; the world lay about at this angle. Shall I go to heaven or a-fishing? If I should soon bring this meditation to an end, would another so sweet occasion be likely to offer? I was as near being resolved into the essence of things as ever I was in my life. I fear my thoughts will not come back to me. If it would do any good, I would whistle for them. When they make us an offer, is it wise to say, We will think of it? My thoughts have left no track, and I cannot find the path again. What was it that I was thinking of? It was a very hazy day.  I will just try these three sentences of Confutsee; they may fetch that state about again. I know not whether it was the dumps or a budding ecstasy. Mem. There never is but one opportunity of a kind.

More on Abiding in Hope

Abiding in hope…

Ed Mooney, over at Mists on the Rivers, has been mulling over the Heidegger passage I posted yesterday, as have I.  The passage fascinates me in part because so many paths intersect in it:  one from Socrates and his avowal of ignorance, one from Eckhart and his working-out of contemplation, one from St. Thomas and his condemnation of curiositas as a form of cognitive intemperance, one from Neitzsche and his linking the will to knowledge to the will to power, one from Husserl and his plying of the reduction, one from Marcel and his ideal of secondary reflection, and one from Wittgenstein and his contrast of explanation and description.

I cannot rise to the level of Ed Mooney–but let me say a bit more about the line from Marcel.  Marcel distinguishes primary from secondary reflection by distinguishing between what we might call their ‘objects’, problems and mysteries.  There is a lot to say about that distinction, and I have toyed with it on the blog a time or two (here for example).  But a key idea is the idea of investigations that are, as it were, self-willed, where the investigator stands above, over and against, what he investigates, and one where the investigator is ‘object-willed’, moved to consideration of what she stands enmeshed in, alongside, and which calls out to her for consideration.  We might say that in the first case, the investigation proceeds in light produced by the investigator, in the second, in light produced by the ‘object’ investigated.  (Marcel works a far-reaching change on the popular understanding of mystery, which he regards, not as a darkness that overwhelms, but as a light that is blinding, –at first, but that becomes eventually the light in which we see light:  think of Christ on Mount Tabor.)  Heidegger seems to understand some things as worthy of thought, as calling out to us to think them, and to think in relationship to them.  Curiosity all-too-often is something that we project upon the world–we think about what we regard as worthy of thought, instead of what calls us out of ourselves and into thought.

There seems to me little doubt that Walden (to hook up with Ed’s reflections) is not only a book about but a book that exemplifies secondary reflection.  And I think that secondary reflection is at play too, albeit in different ways, in Socrates’ unknowledge, Echart’s contemplation, St. Thomas’ studiositas (the contrast to curiositas), Husserl’s reduction and Wittgenstein’s descriptions.  It seems likely true even in Nietzsche’s transvalued knowledge.  For all of these, the relationship between the investigator and the investigated transforms the investigation, and that must always already be on the mind of the investigator.  The world does not bumble around us, a flattened pother of objects indifferent to their investigation and that we investigate willy-nilly as we choose, but  instead structures and variegates itself around us, featuring objects that call us to thought and objects that do not.  And what they reveal to us is not a matter of what we take from them but of what they give us, sometimes only after we have earned it by abiding in hope before them, listening even to their silence, waiting for them to speak. What we ‘know’ of them in such moments is not something that we can commodify, something that we can learn by banking on our own conceptions of reasoning about them, our own ability to wring answers to our questions from them.

Didn’t Aristotle push us this way, too, long ago, when he noted that the problem of method is entirely (note that word) determined by the object?

Minding Your Business While Writing (Thoreau)

Thoreau:

The forcible writer does not go far for his themes. His ideas are not far-fetched.  He derives inspiration from his chagrins and satisfactions.  His theme being ever an instant one, his own gravity assists him, gives impetus to what he says.  He minds his business.  He does not speculate while others drudge for him.

Look Homeward, Look Back

It is about time for us to leave Bordeaux.  We fly back home tomorrow.  I then head almost immediately to a conference on Early Analytic Epistemology, a conference at which I present an essay on Sellars I have been struggling with for quite a while, but which shows very little evidence of that fact (I fear).

When I return from that conference, I begin teaching my usual summer course on the Seven Deadly Sins.  I enjoy that course and look forward to it.

I have gotten a chance to talk a lot here with my friend, Jean-Phillippe Narboux, a wonderful man and wonderful philosopher.  We’ve spent some hours reading Merleau-Ponty together–those hours were very rewarding.  I also met and got to talk at some length with Joseph Urbas, who teaches American Literature here, and is writing these days on Emerson and Thoreau.  It was good to talk about Emerson again–it has been a while for me–and Joseph makes a most rewarding interlocutor.

I thank both of them. I also thank the folks who attended my papers and asked questions.  The papers will be better because of those questions.

Goodbye, Bordeaux, and thanks again!

Bordeaux May 4, 2013 011

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