Underlining that fact is how quickly many of the best of them shed the country trappings. Most had resisted the alt-country label in the first place, with a typical Gen-X wariness toward branding—enough so that the genre’s flagship magazine No Depression felt compelled to tag itself the journal of “alternative country music (whatever that is).” But once they’d gotten established, many such artists started trucking down more esoteric roads.
Richard Buckner and Neko Case are perfect examples—their new albums share a dark restlessness, a self-searching intelligence, and the fact that you wouldn’t be inclined to use the word “twang” to describe either of them.
Buckner made his reputation with 1994’s Bloomed, recorded in Texas with producer Lloyd Maines (father of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie) and a team of Austin studio crackerjacks. Its drawling ballads of heartbreak, booze and death followed clear, affecting, sometimes even melodramatic narrative arcs, albeit with signs of po-mo slacker literary airs. It got him signed to major label MCA. But from there he hired a bunch of Chicago and Arizona indie experimentalists to enhance his records with marimbas, discord, and feedback, and his lyrics became less like stories and more like cryptic treasure maps. Devotion and Doubt and Since were all the better for it, to me a couple of the best albums of the late 1990s, but sales disappointed and he was quickly dropped from his label.
He went through a wilderness period of personal upheaval and fine but very small-scale releases before Merge Records adopted him, in what seems mostly like an act of artistic patronage rather than business strategy, for 2004’s Dents and Shells and three more, mostly overlooked albums since. (His one stroke of luck has been that Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has credited Buckner as the greatest influence on his own elliptical verbal style—but who listens to Bon Iver for the lyrics?)
Buckner’s new record, Surrounded, is a chamber piece about insomnia and missed chances recorded in his rural Kingston, N.Y., home. It is as intimate as a stare, and as potentially claustrophobic. But it feels like a journey of reconciliation, with painfully pretty acoustic-guitar textures layered into keyboard loops that sometimes approach electronic trance music, and with a newly burnished richness to his rough-grained voice. The lyrics, parts of a prose piece included in the liner notes, spill over from one song to another, all hint and dodge. Surrounded yields its secrets stubbornly, but for anyone in need of a soundtrack of hard-won solace, it could become a touchstone.
Like Buckner, Neko Case had an unstable childhood in a far-from-functional family—good enough reason to be drawn to the hardscrabble side of country music. Born in Virginia and raised in Washington State, she started out drumming in punk bands out of art school in Vancouver, then launched her solo career with 1997’s The Virginian, a record country enough to include covers of Ernest Tubb and the Everly Brothers. Her steps away from alt-country were more gradual than Buckner’s, perhaps in part because she had another stylistic outlet with the New Pornographers, because she stuck more consistently with her collaborators (including secret-weapon background vocalist Kelly Hogan), and because the voraciously melodious, hush-to-howl musculature of her one-of-a-kind voice made so much sense in the lineage of powerhouse country singers like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Subsequent albums turned first to the noir, torch-song side of country, and then became more expansive.
Her new, confrontationally titled The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The More I Fight, The More I Love You is more sonically gregarious than ever, with its horns, drums, chimes, vocal choruses, and guest appearances by the likes of Jim James of My Morning Jacket.* It sounds more influenced by Sparks and Harry Nilsson than by the Carter Family. Even her rambunctious last album, Middle Cyclone, was not so musically rangy. This time, however, all that sound is being marshaled in a battle against melancholy: She’s been frank that this album is the product of a profound depression after the deaths of her beloved grandmother (inspiration of many of the songs on her best album, 2006’s mystic-realist Fox Confessor Brings the Flood) and of her estranged parents. Being at odds with one’s family, she’s discovered, doesn’t necessarily dilute the impact of their loss; it might make it far worse. Even at Case’s bleakest she never loses her sense of humor, and she has an ear for gentle succor, but on this record the stakes are never low.
But while it’s impossible to be bored when you’re listening to Neko Case sing, several of these songs feel like they’re stalking feelings they can’t quite capture. Case has said that she wrote some of them in such a blue haze that she doesn’t even remember the process, and that fuzziness is palpable. It reminds me of Blacklisted, Case’s record just before Fox Confessor, sounding like someone on the verge of a breakthrough but not out of the swamp yet. If the next leap is nearly as big as that one I can hardly imagine the results.
This seems to be her aim. Amid the silly ribald chatter in her appearance on the Nerdist podcast recently, Case disclosed in a sobering moment: “I just really want to do a good job. That’s what I really want. Because … I don’t have a husband or a family or anything—like, well, I fuckin’ married this shit, I’d better go from journeyman to master at some point. Or at least really try. You’d better get into the anti-gravity suit and spend your 26 hours in the lead chamber or whatever the hell you have to do, in your sensory-deprivation pod, and come out the other side fuckin’ Pavarotti, if you’ve jettisoned the rest of your earthly joys”—she laughed—“for music.” (A few extra fucks deleted.)
An incubator in which to grow “from journeyman to master”—that’s another iteration, I think, of what the alt-country chrysalis permitted both Case and Buckner early in their careers. They could draw upon the finest of the past while their own voices emerged, but also see from history how far there was left to go. Now they grow nearer those heights with each new phase, having long since cleared the sagebrush and struck their own paths.
So perhaps there is hope, too, for the yo-ho’ing Mumfineers, that some of them will shrug off their thrift-shop motley for tunes more befitting their own shapes and times, with enough vitality that some later revivalist might even take them for inspiration. If not, at least they’ll have given thousands of people an excuse to gulp down extra oxygen and have a big group sing, which might not go down in musical history but is good for the cardiovascular system and the serotonin receptors too, while awaiting the day a fresher musical movement sneaks up behind us and yells “hey!”
Correction, Sept. 12, 2013: This article originally referred to Jim James as Jim Jones. (Return.)