In the liner notes to Devotion & Doubt, Richard Buckner says he originally wrote “Song of 27″, the album’s final track, “as a theme of sorts for an album I wanted to make based on my own family’s characters. I abandoned the project due to the overuse of expletives.”
It’s just as well. Instead, Devotion & Doubt ended up being about whatever you want it to be. It can be about a trip across the country, across time, across your soul. It can be about the slow and painful process of going crazy, or the equally slow and painful process of going sane again. It can be about the one that got away, or the one that still remains, or the one that never showed up.
To me, it’s mostly something I can smell. That’s what I remember vividly, about that moment, that place, that feeling. In the faint glow of the hours approaching the dawn — not dusk, but the darkness leading just to the edge of it — that smell still hangs in the air, returning all semblance of reality to a reckoning point. There were brightest highs and bleakest lows, and it happened so fast that sometimes I wonder if it even happened at all. And then I hear “Song of 27″ and understand all too well that, yes, it was me in that moving picture, though the flickering projector now casts an empty light upon the wall, the film long since finished, the tape going click-click-click as it spins off the reel, the definitive sound of “over”. And yet there is that smell, lingering, haunting, confirming, that even the endings really have no end.
Brushes dragged lazily in a circle upon a snare. Echoes of a fading voice as it backs away from the mike on the last line. The resolute twang of acoustic guitar strings nudged, strummed, caressed, buzzed. Salty tears running down the russet neck of a steel guitar. Crickets cutting through the silence of Arizona, whir-buzzing a rhythm track to the desert moon. Strains of an accordion — pushing, pulling, leading, retreating, wanting, waning.
“If I had your little two-time figure close just one last time…”
“Never tell them where it hurts/Keep your bullet safe inside.”
“Now all I want is just a little nothin’ more.”
Ah yes, the words. Don’t come looking for logic and linear thinking, they are not welcome here. Nor verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus. Nor promises, proclamations, declarations or divinations. All that remains, once the paint has peeled away, is devotion, and doubt.
But words, without sound, are mere skeletons. It’s the voice that brings Buckner’s music to flesh; he is, above all else, a singer. It’s a smooth, melodious croon, by nature, but imbued with such a warm, bittersweet darkness that the sound seems to ooze from the speakers in richly layered browntones with every careful cadence.
“I saw such light in you,” he wails on “Fater”, to the accompaniment of absolutely nothing, save the betrayed despair of one left behind as the other leaves and travels well. “Of course I’ll choke/Of course I’ll fire,” is his guarantee in “Pull”, as his voice does just that. “Do you want smoke or just a spark?” is the mystery of “Roll”, delivered in a deathly hushed whisper that would serve to fan the flame.
And then there’s “Little Wallet Picture”, a snapshot from 1985, a day never to be forgotten, and a vision of a highway that winds alongside the boundaries of the imagination, heat mirages reflecting off the asphalt for miles and miles of desert floor. “This stretch of 99 takes so many lives, and one of them was mine.”
Last night I dreamed I was driving down the wrong side of the road on 99 and got slammed head-on by a pickup truck. I have no idea what that means, but somehow my subconsciousness insisted it had something to do with Townes Van Zandt. Then again, Richard Buckner has been known to introduce his song “22″ as a song he wrote after listening to too much Townes. So maybe the ghost was just making the rounds last night. “Here in the house of spirits there’s a ghost with a drink,” Buckner confirms in the record’s opening moments.
To be sure, ghosts are all over Devotion & Doubt. Ghosts of highways, postcards and cool-ass shows. Ghosts of 4 a.m., of Kate Rose and Polly, of a goodbye rye. Ghosts of sleepy little dreamers and weepy little ragers. Ghosts of images etched indelibly in the corners of the mind, of souls trapped forever on a single slab of silver-laced film.
“Underspent, and too young too/I stumbled onto a picture of you.” But there are no little wallet pictures to trigger that lingering memory. Only the smell remains…