Men aren't supposed to brood about dying relationships as much as women, but, of course, some of us do. Sensitive guys don't have to be eunuchs though. We come in a rich array of shades and styles. Even the crudest typology would have to distinguish between the passionate, enigmatic guy-with-a-guitar and the cloying composer of love letters. One would be hard pressed to find a better example of the former than Richard Buckner, whose 1997 sophomore LP, Devotion + Doubt, stands as an enduring monument to post-break up male angst.
The most cohesive and accomplished record in a distinguished catalog, Devotion + Doubt chronicles the artist's divorce from his first wife, and, as such, it doesn't dance particularly well. It is, even by Buckner's standard, an eminently subdued affair. Though "A Goodbye Rye," the LP's lone alt-country rocker, does presage his somewhat livelier follow-up, Since; most of the tracks on Devotion + Doubt are delicate and spare. The arrangements are shot through with silences and empty spaces, leaving room for atmospheric instrumental touches and, more importantly, serve to showcase Buckner's smoky baritone, which alternates between an unapologetic twang and a haunting whisper.
The lyrics on Devotion + Doubt are among the strongest and most tantalizingly cryptic, of Buckner's career. Lines like "I looked inside the ring we wear / and read myself to sleep," which presumably refers to an inscription on the inside of a wedding band, elicit and comfortably accommodate multiple interpretations. When Buckner notes that "vows abound in infidels" at the end of "Ed's Song," he underscores the irony that infidelity is, partly, a product of the vows it transgresses. On "4AM," he embraces contradiction and, indeed, seems to delight in his own ambivalence: "I thought I was cured of any last chance. / Unfastened and floored / now all I want is just a little nothing more." This sort of exegesis may well be misguided, however, for as Buckner observes in the wonderfully wistful "Figure," "the words are done / and the silence just smokes on through." However deconstructed, lines likes these reflect Buckner's writerly approach to song craft, and their obscurity ultimately makes the occasional moments of clarity on the album all the more exhilarating.
Devotion + Doubt is a famously intimate record, but it is the veiled, almost oblique, quality of the confessions it contains, rather than their candor, that makes it such an interesting personal document. The album's emotional landscape is complex and not particularly well-lit, and Buckner's elusiveness on this terrain allows him to be vulnerable and sympathetic while never seeming emasculated or wholly defeated. All of this helps to make Devotion + Doubt absolutely essential listening for anyone who appreciates serious and, yes, dark songwriting.
2. Lil Wallet Picture
3. Ed's Song
5. A Goodbye Rye
7. Kate Rose
10. Polly Waltz
12. On Travelling
13. Song of 27