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.

Bill Mallonee’s *Lands and Peoples* (Review)

America, American, Americana

[In what follows I weave together a response to Bill Mallonee’s latest album and answers he gave to me to questions I asked him about it. I thank him for his time.]

Our life drives us apart and forces us upon science and invention–away from touch.  Or if we do touch, our breed knows no better than the course fiber of football.  Though Bill Bird say that American men are the greatest business men in the world:  the only ones who understand the passion of making money:  absorbed, enthralled in it.  It’s a game.  To me, it is because we fear to wake up that we play so well.  Imagine stopping money making.  Our whole conception of reality would have to be altered…

…Who is open to injuries? Not Americans!  Get hurt; you’re a fool.  The only hero is he who is not hurt.  We have no feeling for the tragic. Let the sucker who fails get his.  What’s tragic in that?  That’s funny! To hell with him.  He didn’t make good, that’s all.  –William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain

Love has a million faces
But only one heart

Bill Mallonee sings this line with meditative authority on his darkly beautiful new album, Lands and Peoples.  It is hard enough to pen a line like this, and another to sing it with such presence, to sing it with tested conviction.  From Mallonee, the line is not sentimentality, but realism–it calls us to recognize that what concerns us is not human hearts, but the human heart.  We are all possessed by love, for better or for worse.  The line between good and evil cleaves the human heart itself; it does not cleave one heart from another. I can treat another human heart as alien only to the degree that I am alienated from my own.

The stocktaking gaze that Mallonee turned on himself and his art in last year’s Winnowing he now turns outward:  Lands and Peoples stretches far and wide.  Mallonee chases a dream of America on the album, asking why the dream has proven so hard to realize and why we cannot give it up, why it continues to inspire love even while much we have built in its name continues to spawn misery.  “This new yet unapproachable America”–that is what our greatest philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, called his beloved country.  He meant that America is always running ahead of itself, that it is always trying to become itself, that it always remains a problem for itself.  Mallonee sees the country similarly.  I asked him if he thought of the new album as a political album.  His answer was No.

Political albums bore the hell out of me.  I wanted to ask the deeper, evaluating questions in the form of small, individual stories/songs.  I wanted to hold up a bit of a mirror to ourselves.  Do we like what we see?  We live in a system.  Is the system working?  This grand experiment we call democracy:  is it playing out well?  If it is working, is it working for all?  If not, why not?

The album does not take political sides, left or right, but expresses a deep unhappiness with what politics has become, left and right.  Mallonee rightly deplores the vice that seems all-too-often to characterize those in power, our contemporary oligarchy.  For example, he calls out the abuse of flags and rhetoric–and the reduction of everything and everyone to commodity:

There is only inventory left to take and some history to invent
For a nation forged with guns and lies, flags and rhetoric
There ain’t nothing like the past to remind you of who you are
There ain’t nothing like the present to remind you of who you aren’t
After everyone’s been bought and everyone’s been sold
The steering wheel is a prayer wheel on the open road

Mallonee remains in an interrogative posture toward America, and the songs invite us to take up that posture.

It is really just basic questions:  In our often unquestioned rush to embrace whatever version of modernity is making its way on to the shelf of our consumer lives, are we perhaps losing something?  What is it we’re losing? Add in all the mind-numbing technological ‘trimmings’.  We seem dulled, hardly motivated.  Are we becoming incapable of being passionate about the big ideas? What Christ called the weightier matters of the law?  Things like Compassion, Justice and Mercy? Has a form of cynicism crept in, leaving us vacant in spirit and (I think) prone to manipulation?  That manipulation takes many forms.  I think about these things.

The songs on Lands and Peoples ruminate on these questions, think about these things. The title track, a new entrant into the Great American Song Book, closes with the notes of closing songs, played for an ending national holiday, maybe played for an ending nation:

Now, closing songs from sad bandstands can bring you some relief
‘Cross a parking lot that littered with our grandeur and our griefs
Tonight moonlight plays her hand beneath a field of pure star-shine
All the lands and peoples, stretching far and wide

But it is important to understand that the plaintive notes are not all that there is:  as they linger in the night, the sky overlooks the litter, and stars glitter in continuing promise:  the parking lot need not be our greatest, our final accomplishment.

An amazing song, built on an outside-of-time structure of guitar, banjo and harmonica. It manages to bring past America into fully present Americana.  And it does that while asking us to consider our future. The presence of the past and of the present and of the future collect in one song.  Its melody is both completely new and rooted firmly in the vernacular of American popular music. The vocals perfectly express both fatigue and determination, both acknowledgment of the failures of the past and hope for something better.

But in general, the album faces America story by story and character by character, not just in the larger, collective terms of the title song. Mallonee’s imagination has been gripped by the stories of various places in the American past, particularly the dust-swept Great Plains of the 1930’s.  The plight faced by those people has become iconic for Mallonee–worth considering itself, and serving as a metaphor for the current state of the country, and for our own individual fates.  Mallonee ends the album with “It All Turns to Dust”.

No, there’s not much you can count on
But, here’s one thing you can trust
Everything and everyone?
It all turns to dust

Mallonee reminds us not only of the Dust Bowl, not only of the continuing exploitation of the downtrodden, but also of our own of-the-earth earthiness:  dust to dust.  Robert Frost once suggested that we might think of ourselves as having been made by God from prepared mud (a nod to evolution), but even so we will eventually become unprepared mud.  Cheaters and the cheated will end up mixed together under the feet of a new generation.

I think Lands and Peoples  is a dark and sober album…[It] looks…outward, but through the eyes of characters who have fallen through the cracks of the American Dream through no fault of their own.  [The album] might be seen as a…grieving process about hallowed and precious things that get lost, things that go “unborn”.  Beautiful, sacred things that go unrecognized.

Mallonee sings the stories of his characters in his unstudied, Everyman’s voice–one clearly close in various ways to Mallonee’s speaking voice.  His unstudied (but far from careless) delivery aims at reducing barriers between himself and his listener.  Mallonee wants to be heard, not just listened to.  The question that guides his singing/writing is simple:

Have I won your trust with whatever truth I sang?

Mallonee is deeply concerned with both the modulation and the exposition of the thoughts his songs represent.  His concern with exposition is his concern with truth.  His concern with modulation is his concern to present the truth truly.  Mallonee–perhaps in part because of the spiritual realities faced in his songs–is more aware than most that it is possible to so say what is true in an untrue way:  for example, to say what is true but to do so simply to feed one’s pride. He works to present his characters in a way that respects them and makes them recognizable–so that listeners can know their pains are shared.

You take notes from those who are generous enough to come to shows and say things like:  “Thanks for understanding me.  The songs make me know I am not alone.  They make me know that others have borne similar griefs, trials, etc.”  So, things like that have a profound, humbling effect on a writer.  It means you are starting to hit the mark.

Put it this way:  Mallonee allows the experience of others to speak through him.  To do this, he employs the common tongue, speaks in the words of proverb, slang, idiom.  He knows he cannot let others speak through them unless he uses the words we share–speaks from and for the human heart.

If a song is written in the second-person, like many of the songs on [the album], I want you (the listener) to feel like you are having all of your questions answered by him/her by the time the song is over.  Of course, the particular instrumentation lends to the conversation as well, you know?  Is he lonely? forsaken? desperate? has he just cast caution to the wind? Then, let the instruments reinforce that stance.

America speaks on the album.  Its current peoples, its past peoples–they gather here for a conversation about a country that seems itself all too often lonely, forsaken and desperate.

Mallonee has a sense for the tragic.  For men and women who can be hurt.  He knows that getting hurt often happens to those who are not fools.

The album opens with “At Least for a Little While”.  The song asks for a little light, or, failing that, just some break in the darkness.

No more dark clouds; Oh, baby, that’s not your style
No more dark clouds, at least for a little while
At least for a little while
So if you’re walking wounded, bedeviled and all
Honey, if you’re walking wounded, darling, I won’t let you fall
One more thing about that drifting, every place becomes your home
And, yes, you may be lonely but you never are alone

The album takes us under the dark clouds.  But Mallonee does not leave us alone.  What is to be made of our plight, our current predicament?  What verdict or sentence will be given?  In a moment that mixes a remarkable image with a bit of self-reference (the words ‘audible sigh’ are the title of an earlier album), Mallonee imagines

All the words of the Lord in an audible sigh

His comment on the image was this:

I liked the idea of God pronouncing a verdict of sorts on us contained in that line.  As if the Lord was shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck over our blindness.

Memorable.  This is a challenging and deeply rewarding album, heart-wrenching and mindful.  And beautiful.  Few albums have ever undertaken the searching tour of America that Lands and Peoples does.  Few songwriters have ever been more concerned sympathetically to understand the making and the unmaking of Americans.

Emerson and Montaigne 1

I will begin with a quotation–as I so often do.  But–“we are all quotation”–so, why hide it?

This is from Firkins’ strange and compelling book on Emerson.  He is addressing the issue of clarity in Emerson.

Dr. Garnett writes of the individual sentence in Emerson:  “His thought is transparent and almost chillingly clear.”  For most men, the clarity is hardly of the sort that regulates the temperature.  It is true, nevertheless, that for Emerson, as for Browning and Meredith, around the fact of obscurity and illusion of greater obscurity has grown up.  The trouble with Emerson is more often strangeness than dimness; the indistinctness of the moral Monadnock or Agiochook which he points out to us is due rather to the distance of the peak than to the haze of the atmosphere.

I will let this quotation stand alone for a moment.  I will have something to say about it, and about other moments in Firkins, in the next post.

Emerson on Montaigne, a New Start

Last year, around this time, I was writing here about Emerson’s essay on Montaigne.  I got distracted from that and moved on to other things.  But I am going to get back to it now.  Look for more posts in the coming days.  In the meantime, you might want to look at the initial post I wrote last year.

Draft of MMP Talk

Here is a draft of a talk I am to give soon.  I was asked to present something that might inspire majors and non-majors, and to do something more like what I would do in a class than what I would do giving a conference paper.  This is the result so far.  It is a  formalization of the sort of thing I might do in an upper-level class.  Since I think of it as a talk and not a paper, it is not bedecked with all the scholarly niceties–footnotes or full footnotes, etc.  Most of the footnotes are really just drawers in which I have stashed useful quotations or (I hope) brief, helpful clarifications.  Comments welcome.

Hats Off

Commenting on Emerson’s late-life aphasia, West writes:

…In his aphasia he often turned to action to supplement failing speech.  Some of his gestures attained an uncanny purity of expression beyond anything in the language of nature dreamed of by Condillac.  One morning Mrs. Emerson and his doctor led him into the garden to see the roses.  Struck by one unusually fine specimen, the doctor repeated a line from George Herbert’s “Vertue,” which Emerson had recited to him at length many years before.  Emerson gazed at the rose in admiration, then as if on impulse gently lifted his hat and said with a low bow, “I take my hat off to it”.  That was the heroic act of a very great orator, who, as words failed him, still contrived with diminished vocabulary to match the eloquence of his prose.

Michael West, Transcendental Wordplay

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