If you were educated in America's public schools, you likely encountered the incumbent "Introduction to Poetry" unit sometime between the ages of 11 and 14. Your teacher certainly announced that poetry was neat and important, and your peers (and you, perhaps) certainly replied with a wave of groans. Given such a response, it's common and understandable for teachers to use pop songwriting as a poetic lubricant, a latchkey into convincing students that poetry's not so hard. The kids, after all, already know the words to hundreds of poems (songs). "Oh, wouldn't it be nice?" Still, others protest, insisting that poetry—writ large and strict and sturdy and separate—is different, perhaps even superior to simple songwriting.
Richard Buckner—a California-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter now 13 years into his career—is the weathered, brilliant thorn in the side of both pedagogies. With every album he makes, Buckner writes words that work increasingly well on both the page and the record (click play above). This is rare: Plenty of modern songwriters, from David Berman and Jeff Tweedy to Jewel and Billy Corgan, work (for better and worse) in both realms, writing songs for their bands and releasing different words in glorified chapbooks. But Buckner hasn't released a book, save the librettos that line his albums. He doesn't need to: Buckner's songwriting uniquely functions both on the page as poem and on the record as song. This is a conscious, deliberate move, as Buckner handles the written word and the sung song separately, not adulterating the fidelity of his poetry to make the song more communicative, and vice versa.
Meadow, his eighth album and his second for Merge Records, makes the best case for this yet. Album midpoint and titular fount "Before" opens both on record and on page with an exasperated set of reflections, Buckner weary from a long line of drugs, farewells and a clouding lack of sunlight. On paper, what follows is a chunk of 98 words in paragraph form, written more like a Frank O'Hara spree and less like a song manipulated into rhyming verses and repetitive refrains. Other songs come with words tucked inside parentheses, broken into lines like character dialogue, or punctuated with exclamation marks, double contractions, ellipses and compound modifiers. But, on "Before" and the rest of Meadow, the written words come reshaped and recentered for the song, everything fitting into a two-and-a-half minute song with definite melodic structure carved out by Buckner's age-old baritone. The pauses Buckner intends for the page concede to the tempo of the song, his poetry recognizing the needs of the song and, in turn, making both more remarkable in the process.
Richard Buckner plays Cat's Cradle with his first full band in years, Six Parts Seven, Sunday, July 15, at 9:30 p.m. David Karsten Daniels opens.