Marissa Nadler and Richard Buckner aren't telling the whole truth, or at least they're not making it easy to hear.
Though separated by a few decades of age and experience, Buckner and Nadler have, in recent years, emerged as champions of elliptical music, recasting the straightforward folk laments or country crooning beauties of their earlier careers in strange new shapes. They've drawn thin curtains around their words and sounds, moves that have pulled the audience closer to the music by offering the constant promise of endless mystery. On their latest albums, the songs are impressions instead of images, feelings instead of stories. "Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling," the American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote in 1949. More and more, both Nadler's and Buckner's albums are separately approaching that standard.
Nadler first crept into attention a decade ago as a guitar-plucking songwriter, her soft voice sending spooky signals into an acoustic haze. She was a fable-obsessed sort. Though her music always seemed too distant and spectral for sitting and strumming in a coffeehouse, it took her several years and several albums to find the proper context for her expert loneliness. Assisted by an economical assembly of cellos and harps, synthesizers and drums, she began to conjure eerie settings on 2007's Songs III: Bird on the Water. She's refined (and, occasionally, fumbled) that approach on her four subsequent albums. She finally perfected it on this year's July.
These 11 songs are among the most plainly written and easily read of Nadler's career: a raconteur leaves a sea of heartbreak, a long trip precedes a romance or a disaster, a memory binds the hopeful past to the desperate present. On paper, they're almost transparent. But on record, they're unknowable.
Recorded by heavy metal producer Randall Dunn and assisted by classical composer Eyvind Kang and former Whiskeytown guitarist Phil Wandscher, Nadler surrounds those songs with aloof textures—strings pulled from the Twin Peaks roadhouse, drums so languid that they seem to play the rests instead of the beat, harmonies that circle the melodies as ghosts. These sounds hang like thin gray clouds around Nadler's work, putting a perceptible veil between the singer and the receiver. You want to lean in, to peer past the band to understand the core of the tune. With the help of company, Nadler made her most direct songs her most daunting, too.
Buckner, on the other hand, used to record with marquee producers and full bands all of the time. Country music sideman J.D. Foster helmed Buckner's stunning pair of late '90s albums for MCA, Devotion + Doubt and Since. Session legends Lloyd Maines and Marc Ribot played on the former, while former Yo La Tengo guitarist Dave Schramm and Tortoise drummer John McEntire played on the latter.
During the last decade, though, or for most of his ongoing run with Merge Records, Buckner has drawn the process of making music largely inward. When he plays live, he hunches over a guitar at center stage, rarely breaking focus or coming up for niceties as he spins one song into the next. It's a suggestive glimpse into how he makes albums these days. "All racket was made by me in my room," he notes by way of credits for last year's Surrounded. That's him turning electric guitars and keyboards into a reflecting pool for his gruff baritone during "Go," him turning a looped slice of noise into the beat that becomes the backbone for "When You Tell Me How It Is."
But he's not going solo out of fashion so much as necessity: Buckner's songbuilding process has become so arduous and individual that he seemingly has no other option than to shape the music himself. In the past, Buckner's lyrics—as written on the page, at least—have included webs of parentheses and unexpected line and paragraph breaks, imparting a meaning that might have been missed simply by listening.
What Buckner sings on Surrounded are mere excerpts from a longer five-part essay included with the album and color-coded to show what's been edited out (red), what's of particular note (green) and what he croons (black). Surrounded ends with "Lean-To" a graceful, humming number of far-off organ and up-close acoustic guitar. In the last verse, Buckner sings "Captured, never showing up," a line that feels removed from the rest of the song, a plot twist that reroutes the entire album. But the full text reads, "Someone should've taken you aside, but until you're captured, they'll never again be charmed into showing up at all."
It's interesting to imagine Buckner attempting to explain that change to band members, more prone to wonder how many times a riff repeats before the bridge than why three-quarters of the words to a song disappeared. This one-man music—shaped, bowerbird-like, from snippets and selections—is intuitive only for Buckner. But it's intriguing for the listener, always left to wonder what else has been left out of the frame.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heavy edits"