An artist makes a record like The Hill when there's nothing left to lose or prove or when, should such a glimmer remain, he sees his chance, leaps to it and snuffs it out. The ink-black-and-burlap-brown cover; the trashy percussion, triangles, cellos and banjos collapsing as in a termite-ridden hotel; the dead voices conjured by a 50-year-dead and mostly no-longer-read minor American poet; the muffled guitar noise and funereal moans barely reverberating, close-quartered as a coffin: The record is as fun as falling down a cistern.
Edgar Lee Masters was born in Kansas in 1868 and grew up in Petersburg and Lewistown, Ill. A writer, his adult work happened in Chicago. Richard Buckner was born in 1964 in Fresno, Calif., and grew up in Northern California. A writer and musician, his adult work happened while always on the move.
Published in serial form in 1914-15, Spoon River Anthology is a sequence of poems, each named for some real or imagined member of Edgar Lee Masters' Midwest communities -- Elmer Karr, A.D. Blood, Oscar Hummel, Emily Sparks -- each giving voice to what, in their death, still haunts them: betrayal, judgment, fear, "broken pride and shameful humility" or more concrete things, a last letter, "the blood that calls to our blood" or the brain maddened by the gift of another's body.
Not exactly the stuff of the next DJ spin, but it's fitting that Buckner would turn to Masters' haunted lines for his first post-major-label recording. He has sung from the dead zone before. Three songs into his debut Bloomed, Buckner offered "22," a suicide's bathetic tale in which a lifesaving phone call comes too late. There's quick-witted truth secreted away in lines like "I was only 22/All undone and overdue," but the song is maudlin. Bloomed is not and remains one of the best records from 1995, alternative country's single best year. Two years later, Buckner pushed beyond the careful -- and drumless and electric-guitar-less -- sounds of fiddle, mandolin and Dobro for his first collaboration with Calexico's Joey Burns and John Convertino (as well as Howie Gelb, Marc Ribot and J.D. Foster). Devotion and Doubt marked a rare moment of musical and lyrical alignment: His Joycean love of language found an orchestral minimalism, the fewest number of instruments achieving the greatest emotional effect. Devotion and Doubt was Buckner's first record for MCA. Since (1998) was his last: Barely audible catgut guitars or, alternatively, old amps pumping the noisy exorcisms of Dave Schramm, the feel-it-or-forget-it percussion and piano of art-rockers John McEntire and David Grubbs and a lead singer who conveys a jagged and blossoming soul like he's singing it -- each and every time -- for the first and last. Many records, in other words, were not sold. But, as in Buckner's case, this music will never go out of fashion; it was never in to begin with.
This brings us back to The Hill, much of which Buckner recorded alone in "secret locations," with little more backing than the Calexico rhythm section. Noisier, artsier and old-timey-er than anything Buck-ner's ever done, The Hill might safely be called a gem of folk art, save that Edgar Lee Masters' plainspoken verse only intermittently measures up to Buckner's own white-hot visions. The young man from Fresno is the more evocative artist. See for yourself at Off Broadway, where he'll be joined by the gifted Eric Heywood on pedal steel.