Richard Buckner began his music career recording for a small Texas label (Deja Disc), moved on to a major (MCA), and is now back on an independent label (Chicago-based Overcoat), where he has released this ambitious conceptual piece. Here, Buckner has set to music lyrics culled from Edgar Lee Masters's 1915 novel The Spoon River Anthology. Set in the fictional town of Spoon River, Illinois, the book's text (which reads more like poetry than literature) presents the beyond-the-grave confessions of 244 former citizens of the small town, and the stories they tell are touched by despair, scandal, and tragedy. Buckner's delivery ranges from an a cappella reading to incoherent mumbling, but one doesn't have to catch every word to discern the relentlessly brooding mood at play here. Snatches of the lyrics, e.g., "In death I am avenged," "Death is better than life," and "He slew me to gratify his hatred," adequately convey the dark tone of The Hill.
The melodies are just as entrancing. Buckner's guitar work, which alternates between vigorously strummed acoustic settings, spare folky arrangements, and harder, denser aural soundscapes, powers these songs, which are augmented by Joey Burns's evocative cello. The song titles all refer to different Spoon River inhabitants ("Dort Williams," "Tom Merritt," "Nellie Clark"), and only the briefest pause or shift in melody indicates where one song ends and another begins (and even that is often very much in question). All told, the brooding landscape of The Hill is a work of haunting beauty that demands the listener's concentration, even though it may very well put a damper on your spirits.