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Embery Lane, Vol. I: Richard Buckner’s “The Hill” (2000/2009) – Spoon River Anthology, Updated

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Stereo Embers Magazine introduces a new feature today with a piece by he what suggested it, one of our newest – and finest – writers, Dan Coffey. Called, somewhat cleverly we hope you agree, “Embery Lane,” watch this space for essays, reappraisals, and the occasional rant about albums from our collective’s vast and varied musical pasts. First up, Richard Buckner’s The Hill. Let us know what you think. Cheers.

2015 marks the centenary of Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic tour of early 20th Century Midwestern hell, Spoon River Anthology. Almost 20 years ago, in 1996, Richard Buckner began to set the poems in the anthology to music. It was a project he chiseled away at for several years, while releasing the two major label albums Devotion + Doubt (1998) and Since (1999).

Masters as a muse for Buckner should come as no surprise; although the first-person delivery of lamentations from other characters is new, the overall sensibility is not. Many of the songs from his first album, Bloomed (1995), are equal parts Masters moral dramas and musical versions of Agee/Walker photos/texts in Now Let Us Praise Famous Men (c.f. “Surprise, AZ,” “Up North,” “Emma,”).

When MCA dropped Buckner from its roster, Overcoat Records agreed to release The Hill, the title of the completed Masters-inspired project.  Aided by Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico, Buckner plays some of the prettiest acoustic and slide guitar he’d recorded to date, as well as some extremely acerbic electric guitar riffs to remind us where we are. The noise in the album gives a perfect view into the tormented souls of Masters’ characters, while the weave of acoustic guitar reminds us that, as cruel and ugly as some of the stories get, there is an interconnectedness and love that runs through the poems as well.

Not every track features vocal renditions of Masters’ texts; indeed, every other track is an instrumental, though the titles are still the same as those of Masters’ poems (all of which are named after the character they represent). The instrumentals eerily evoke the nature of the character and the situation of the poem perhaps even more effectively than the vocal tracks.

When The Hill was released on CD fifteen years ago, Buckner did the commercial equivalent of shooting oneself in the foot – he released the album, all 18 songs, as one consecutive track, forcing the listener to listen to the album as an extended piece. (Later editions released on Merge Records resolved the “problem.”) One gets the sense that Buckner had the premonition that the album was doomed to obscurity from the start (and he was right), so why not go for broke and make it impossible for listeners to experience the work in any other way than how the artist intended – as a suite of connected songs that weren’t meant to exist apart from the whole.

In 2009, Merge Records re-released the album with separate tracks, and this year the album is being released for the first time on vinyl. So drop a few bucks for a used copy of Spoon River Anthology (the more beat-up, the better) and Buckner’s The Hill, and see what happens when the prohibitionist A.D. Blood gives poor drunken Oscar Hummel “blows from the stick in his hand.” Yes, this is dark, tragic, life-affirming stuff.