No matter the medium of expression, songwriter Richard Buckner has been stubbornly mining the same vein his entire career, a Sisyphian struggle that delights his fans. Even on The Hill -- where he set poems from the Spoon River Anthology to music -- Buckner has looked incessantly at loneliness, betrayal, loss, displacement, yearning, and ennui to inform his lyric vision. What it all leads to is an impressive, stubborn, dark body of work that looks deeply into the interiority and detail of human interaction. His sonic approaches have changed, and are most ambitious on Our Blood, where the use of vintage keyboards equals the space taken up by guitars. Our Blood is Buckner's first recording since 2006's Meadow. He endured numerous obstacles along the way: broken gear resulting in the album's loss, the later theft of a laptop containing his new mixes and more astonishing ones. These nine new songs are a quiet, atmospheric, aural portrait of struggle, confusion, frustration, and the inability to surrender. Buckner produced and played all the instruments with the exception of pedal steel -- played by Buddy Cage on three cuts -- and maracas by Steve Shelley on another. Malcolm Burn mixed. Electric guitars and Cage's steel adorn "Traitor." It most closely resembles -- in form and sentiment -- the songs on his landmark Bloomed album, but its texture is radically different; it's a love song of the most strained variety. On "Thief," pulsing organs and a Wurlitzer piano interact with tom-toms and guitars as Buckner exhorts "Give it back, broken-in and stolen from the mourning....watching the gone go by, baited and kept alive, shaking you loose...." While it's an accusation, it's also a plea: in spite of everything, he longs for the thief's return, forgiveness already in place. "Collusion" is ushered in by guitars before synths enter after the first verse, and observes failure and loneliness by a narrator who empathically describes the dissolution of the song's subject and situation. Even the instrumental "Ponder," with its faux-flamenco guitars, harmonium, marimbas, and lilting piano lines broods and bleeds. "Confession," beginning with just an acoustic guitar, is as naked Buckner gets. He asks his age-old question in the opening lines, within and without: "We must've been carried away/And where are we now?...." In "Hindsight," another track with Cage and guitars colored by synths and electric piano, he simply explains that this is yet another case of opportunity either taken away by fate or by personal failure. That said, the song, with his trademark, authentic architecture of melodrama, approaches the sublime. All of the songs on Our Blood, as tragic and resigned as they may be, contain a trace of restrained fury that threatens to expose itself often, but never takes the bait. What remains is an unsettled acceptance without surrender. Our Blood, with its tattered, frayed grace, reflects Buckner's compellingly listenable, weary yet stubborn poetic journey, for answers to questions -- both past and and present, elliptical and enormous --that lie just beyond his grasp.
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