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.

Half Rumination, Half Scrutiny (Mervyn Peake)

The long-sounding final paragraph of MP’s The Craft of the Lead Pencil:

What does it matter how long or slow you are in the traffic of lead and paper?  The advance from virtual blindness to that state of perception–half rumination, half scrutiny–is all that matters.  The end is hypothetical.  It is the journey that counts.

We could say this of writing too, and philosophy, and of thoughtful living generally. 


Reading Annie Dillard on a picnic table.  Tiny ants trudge around in myopic busyness.  One ambitious climber clambers up and onto the open pages of the book.  I fail to observe him and so crush him with my hand.  He dies slowly over minutes, seconds, aeons.  I watch him die:  it is the only gift I can give him.  His filament legs stop moving and he goes still.  Goes. Gone.  A universe of death packed into his inarticulate articulated body.  Goes.  Gone.  I look up at the patchy blue sky.  It seems to ripple above the water of the lake.  It envies the lake’s shores, the lake’s shapeliness.  A form of meaning.  The horizon is an obstruction, not a limit.  Gone.  I begin again to read, now careful where I put my hands.

The Present Actual Situation of Philosophical Reflection

While philosophical reflection is temporally-historically so conditioned, its aim is the universal and eternal.  These however are, and are reflectively discernible, only in and through the individual and temporal.  Or better:  since the universal and individual, eternal and temporal, are not distinct things or opposites, but constitute reflectively characterizable aspects of the concrete situation of being, reflection must break forth out of non-reflective immersion in the present actual situation.  In so doing, it does not leave that situation but constitutes that altered mode of absorption within the concrete situation which attempts to elicit in conception the universal and eternal accessible to it.  –Richard Gotshalk, “Reflection and Seeing”

Between (Charlie Hickey, Music Review Essay)


This is Not Easy for Me 

Charlie Hickey

Patience with yourself is demanding, particularly when you are young.  You are prone to impatience with yourself; others are prone to impatience with you.  It can seem that your teenage years are a weary succession of one today “I am forever committed” and one tomorrow “On to the next thing…”.  A chorus of voices, your own often the loudest, keeps chanting: “Choose!”  But choosing is precisely what you really cannot do, not once and for all.  This is not the stage of life at which choosing, final choosing anyway, typically gets done.  The hard thing is to be between:  neither a child nor an adult, but on the way from one to the other.  It is hard to keep focused on the journey, –hard not to reach backwards in remembrance toward the voicelessness of childhood, with its attendant freedom, if you are lucky, beneath the rainbow of your parents’ love, –or hard not to reach forward in anticipation to the full voice of adulthood, with its attendant responsibilities, if you are lucky, toward those beneath the rainbow of your love.  The hard thing is to be between, not a child, not yet an adult, but composedly trans-ing  from one to the other.  To be between.


On his new EP, This Isn’t Easy For Me, 16-year old Charlie Hickey presents four songs about being between.  The songs are melodically assured, subtle, eschewing big musical poses for smaller, more intimate gestures.  None of the melodies leap out of the speaker–but all register over listenings and make a home in memory.  Hickey’s voice centers the album:  clear, warm, palpably human, it is a real voice, alive. But it is never showy, never cocky, never crooning, never plangent. Unlike many (and many older) singer-songwriters, Hickey never sends his voice on an errand while he stays behind.  He is there, right there, fully present in his voice.  This substantializes the songs, giving them power and immediacy.

The EP opens with “Broken”.

I’ve got so much love in my life
But I’m looking for some kind of tattered touch
Yeah I can live without it
But sometimes this livin’ is not quite enough

I feel the love of my family
It’s the only thing that really lets me sleep
But when the sleeping gets easy
Sometimes I wish that there was someone beside me

I’ll let my bones be broken when I can find someone to make me feel fixed
I’m looking for someone’s tattered kiss
We can’t go on living like this
We gotta find each other…

Not a typical song of teenaged love.  The addressee is more possible than actual, the distance between the two logical, not spatial.  Part of learning to love is being loved and achieving an open-eyed understanding of the cost of that love.  Familial love is not romantic love, of course, but the loves remain bound up with one another, and the first typically sets the stage for the second.  Hickey captures this beautifully:  he sleeps easy in the love of his family, and yet finds that the very ease of sleep allows him to long for something else, a different kind of love. At a certain point, familial love, however overflowing, is not all the love we wish for.  Our hearts prepare a place for someone else, prepare themselves for the work of loving in a new way.

Part of what makes the song memorable is Hickey’s willingness to acknowledge familial love and its role in fitting him for a new love.  Part of what makes it memorable is his ability to capture the new love while it is still a mere possibility, while he is still reaching out toward someone-he-knows-not-who, who he understands is reaching out, in reciprocal unknowing, toward him.  The final part is carried in its titular word, ‘broken’, and its conceptual rhyme, ‘tattered’.  Hickey treats the possibility realistically.  I mean that he recognizes the cost of love he is wishing for, understands that it will, precisely to the extent that it is real, exact things from him–but he is willing to face the exaction:  “I’ll let my bones be broken…”  He will face it because, again precisely to the extent it is real, it will also reward him:  “… when I can find someone to make me feel fixed.”  And it will cost the person he is reaching out toward–her touch and kiss will be tattered.  Even so, her touch and kiss will be what he needs.  And he will do for her what she has done for him.  Together, the broken and the tattered are fixed and repaired.

“Broken” reaches forward hopefully to new love.  But in the different mood of “I Like the Idea of Loving You”, Hickey expresses the natural diffidence the actual prospect of a new love can cause.

My neck gets sore from trying to keep my head turned away from you
You’re an open door and you’re closing on my fingers
My heart rings. it sounds like a warning bell from heaven
Saying don’t confuse me with anything real

I think I like the idea of loving you
I think I like the idea of loving you
I like the idea of loving you
Sometimes it lights a fire in me
Sometimes it lights a fire in me

This is not easy for me
I couldn’t let the promise of air just breathe
And I’m lying awake cause I couldn’t leave that hope alone
And I’ve been waiting for you or any other red rose that’s passing through
But I relive every little beautiful thing until I can’t see it’s colors anymore…

Commitment in possibility and commitment in actuality are radically different, however similar they may seem in conception.  January 2nd teaches us this unmercifully.  Still, substituting living in imagination for living in reality seduces us, especially in between, when what we hope for is neither inexistent nor in existence.  The work of realizing what we hope for we often want to dodge:  we like the idea of something but shrink from realizing it.  “Don’t confuse me with anything real.”  The problem is that the idea now seems like it must be realized (“Sometimes it lights a fire in me.”) but now seems like I should simply luxuriate in its ideality, waving my hand dismissively toward its reality.  “Almost thou persuadest me…”

Commitment is hard.  (“This isn’t easy for me.”) And so we attenuate it, delay it, by a series of prefixes, each expressive of a mental state:  ‘I think…’, ‘I like…’ even ‘I think I like…’ burying the proposed commitment deep in propositional attitudes.  –A related example:  James Thurber’s title for the fear of the fear of the fear of something:  phobophobophobia.  That is a towering, babbling fear.  –In between, this kind of stepping back from our steppings-back is all-too-common.  We are trying things on, seeing how we look.  But the problem of stepping back repetitiously is that it not only attentuates or delays commitment, it also leeches the color and the vitality from our experiences themselves.  Seeing the rose is one thing:  a visual plunge into a warm pool of saturated red.  But as we relive the seeing, it is as though our eyesight itself dims or the red cools and desaturates:  eventually we cannot see the rose’s color anymore.  I am, as it were, free with respect to what I relive in a way that I am not with respect to what I live–I have elbow room in reflection that I do not have in perception.  But still:  it is the rose that matters, the actual red rose, and if we pass on seeing it in favor of reliving seeing it, we start to lose our anchor in what matters.

The next song turns its attention to the real and to the seduction of escape from what is real.  “I’m Alive”:

Living in the arms of the past
And it’s wildest dreams for me
Old flames to light up just one more time
Weary guiding light

Waiting for the sun on my face to pass
So the hope of tomorrow can show me it’s face at last
When the moment’s grip gets tired of me
I just try to make the future last

I’m alive
In this very instant and my
Breath goes by
Unnoticed but true, you know that
All I have
Are these very moments cause they’re
All I have to run away to

Tomorrow’s always coming
It’s giving me a break
I do so much dreaming
I forget that I’m awake

Dreaming of the day
That don’t need me to be anything that I’m not
A day that is right now
A day that is alive…

The present is our happiness.  This is one of those things we have to tell ourselves over and over because we never quite effectively internalize it.  And that is because being present in the present leaves us vulnerable.  For the most part, we can render ourselves safe from the past, variously jettisoning, suppressing, muffling or misrepresenting it–or, more helpfully, we can gain distance from it and perspective on it. And we can render ourselves safe from the future, because it has no definite shape, and so no sharp edges.  We find in ourselves a will to absent the present, to run away from it.  But of course, if I run away to the past, then I am presently remembering, and if I run away to the future, I am presently daydreaming.  Try as I will, I cannot actually absent the present.  I am always in these very moments.  I succeed only in turning my attention from my vulnerability in the present, I do not render myself invulnerable in the present.  Any escape from the present is a present escape.

Hickey ends the album with “The Child in Me”, attempting to measure accurately the difference between the child he was and the man-in-becoming he has become.  Here, again, Hickey’s patience with himself is instructive.

Being in control is a concept that I sit and try to understand
Scared of fate but hey I guess it’s somewhat up to me in the end
Sitting here meditating on wishing myself the best
Years will grow around me and I’ll try to make the best

Of the child in me that stayed and played and only did the steps he made
But he got by and sometimes he cried

Sittin trying to keep my eyes on the ground
But they keep on going up
I shoot the question out of the gun
But don’t stay long enough to see where it hits me

Like I said, I wanna look down and see both our hands on the ground
Trying to grasp the same thing.  Maybe it’s common ground
It’s all coming down

The child in me that stayed and played
Is going places, looking into faces
And saying, what a beautiful day
And the child in me will make it where you’re going and he’ll meet you there

At sixteen, it is natural to disown your childhood for fear of being treated as a child.  But we often lose our grip on childlikeness in the hurry to discard childishness.  If we mature as we should, a kind of immaturity remains–something resistant to narrow prudence, gamesmanship, cynicism and faithlessness.  And that something is the child who stays and plays within us, if we allow him to do so.  If we exile that child, we exile ourselves from the kingdom, whether the one we now live in or the one that may be to come.  Wonder is spiritual youth; it preserves that plasticity of childhood, preserves a structure weak enough to be responsive but not so weak as to be nothing but response, to be nothing in itself.  To lose that child is to lose the best part of ourselves.  One of the reasons for the common happiness of childhood is that childhood is all present.  (The child has no past really, and has not yet become aware of the future as the future.)  And so childhood is also vulnerable.  And maybe that completes the lesson in Hickey’s sequence of songs:  the cost of happiness is invariably vulnerability.  Absolute safety includes safety from happiness.

Despite their thematic unity, Hickey’s songs musically are varied.  The tempo changes , and so does the instrumentation.  Hickey’s voice and guitar are the centerpiece, but not all there is.  The melodies are subtle–subtle, but hummable, singable.  You will find yourself singing along.

It is not often that someone between cables us a thoughtful report about what it is like to be between.  It takes a certain talent, and a certain strength of character, to make such a report.  Hickey gives one to us, and if we listen carefully, we can recognize in his the report we might have sent. In art, one criterion of getting it right is that what you create ceases to be yours alone and becomes everyone’s.


Letter to a Philosophical Inquirer

As I suppose most philosophers do, I get fairly common requests from folks who are fascinated by philosophy asking for reading lists and advice. I thought I would share my latest response to such a request.

Dear (Inquirer),


   Reading serious philosophers is demanding, but it is ultimately worth it.  But you have to read with a notebook and a pencil, working to write out what you take passages to mean, providing illustrations (literally, pictures), asking yourself questions, making notes of connections with other texts–whether that philosopher’s or other philosophers’.  You cannot read passively.  You have to push back against the text as hard as you can.  It will whip you soundly, but if you are game, and keep coming back, the volleys will last longer and you will begin to understand more and more.

   Suggestions:  Plato’s Socratic dialogues, particularly the Euthyphro, the Euthydemus, the Ion, the Charmides, the Apology.  Read Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics.  Read St. Thomas (Aquinas Ethicus is free online and a great place to start.)  Read Descartes’ Meditations.  Read Rousseau’s Social Contract and Emile.  Read Kant’s Prolegomena.  Read Kierkegaard’s The Present Age.  Read F H Bradley’s Ethical Studies.  Read Russell’s Problems of Philosophy.  Read Wittgenstein’s Blue Book.   These are all wonderfully written, central works, that are written for an educated reader, but not necessarily someone with much formal training in philosophy.  If you can find someone to read with, that is a huge help.  Best if it is someone you can talk to face-to-face, but online is better than nothing.

Expect to be baffled.  Expect to be confused.  As I tell my students, philosophy requires a high confusion threshold.  To read philosophy, you have to be willing to be confused, know you are confused, but nonetheless to read on.  Much of what is necessary in philosophy is the right intellectual habituation, and you can only get that by frequent active reading and frequent conversation.





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