Perfect Sound Forever


A Look At The Great "Divorce" Albums
by Jim Burns
(March 2003)

"What the hell is this? You said 'it's art, just fuckin' mirror it'." With these words starts Tragically Hip lead singer Gordon Downie's "Vancouver Divorce" from his 2001 solo album Coke Machine Glow. Over the course of a song filled with slowly building telecaster squalls, ghostly leftfield organ noise and vocals buried in the mix, the narrator watches his marriage dissolve. It is a truly harrowing song with a spot on arrangement. But it's those first words that I always find myself singing along with. It's ironic that Downie's narrator is having trouble mirroring art, when this song so eloquently mirrors life. The song perfectly captures one of the reoccurring themes of rock n' roll music - that artists have to suffer for their fans to hear their most intimate confessions on loss. There have been many albums made as the artists personal relationships have broken down, and often those feelings have inspired truly classic records. In 1997, Richard Buckner released Devotion And Doubt, a record created in the wake of the songwriter's own divorce. It is a record full of quiet, and sometimes eerie, meditations on the physical and emotional distances that separate lovers. On song after song, Buckner lets listeners in on his life in the midst of a devastating break-up, and in doing so created a classic album of the "divorce" genre.

Other classic "divorce" albums include Bob Dylan's 1975 album Blood On The Tracks and Bruce Springsteen's 1987 album Tunnel Of Love. Both of these records superceded the artist's own divorces and gave listeners insight into the status of their heroes faltering love lives. Some of Dylan's songs were angry and bitter rants like "Idiot Wind" and some were wistful songs of longing like "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go," but each were consistent in presenting a story or reflection of love gone wrong. Tunnel Of Love is a near perfect song cycle that presents the arc of a relationship through a variety of different characters and situations. Early songs show a fresh and invigorating beginning to a relationship with songs like "Tougher Than The Rest" and "All That Heaven Will Allow." However, as the album (and the relationship) progress, the themes of the songs become gradually darker.

One of the biggest selling albums of all time - Fleetwood Mac's Rumours - was made during the break up of two inter-band relationships. But listening to Rumours now it seems the songs don't all hold true to the "break-up" theme. Songs such as "Second Hand News" and "You Make Loving Fun" sound a bit too cheerful with their catchy, sing-along pop sheen to resonate as ones written out of pain.

In recent years, there have been several noteworthy albums of the same genre- Beck's Sea Change, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker, Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call, and Bap Kennedy's Domestic Blues (no doubt that J. Lo could soon join this list after this year's divorce inspires her to new creative heights- keep an eye on your local supermarket aisle for details). These albums all achieve success to varying degrees, but none are as consistently inspired or rewarding as Devotion And Doubt.

Like Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, Devotion And Doubt is a musically bare bones record. The primarily acoustic instrumentation provides a timeless feel to the songs. Pedal steel and acoustic guitars, percussion and Buckner's aching vocals are the framework for much of the record, and makes it a collection of songs that will sound relevant for decades to come. Dylan was known to enter a studio to record with session musicians and not give them a lot of time to get to know the songs they would be working on. This method rarely led to the songs sounding "perfect", but rather loose and spontaneous. Buckner seemed to have approached his songs in a similar manner. By using various musicians and friends (including Howie Gelb of Giant Sand and John Convertino and Joey Burns of Calexico), Buckner was able to create a sound both natural and immediate. Many of the songs sound as though they could have been recorded live in the studio, and are better for it. The music is predominantly quiet and serves as a backdrop for his words. And, like the music of Blood On The Tracks, it occasionally turns up the volume but never overshadows the singer or the song.

However, Buckner does not use words in the same manner as Dylan (then again, who does?). His lyrics are evocative yet minimal, whereas Blood On The Tracks songs throw words out at an overwhelming rate. There are no winding narratives on Devotion And Doubt like Dylan's "Lily, Rosemary, & The Jack Of Hearts", nor anything as forgiving as "If You See Her, Say Hello." Buckner's words are filled with bitterness and spite, not only directed at his lover, but also himself. The a capella "Fater" is a prime example of Buckner putting his words, as well as the sheer intensity of his performance, in the spotlight. When he spits out the words "fighter, fater, faker, and sin, is the name I've taken deep within" towards the end of the song we hear a man as equally disgusted with himself as anyone else.

The conciseness of the lyrics has more in common with Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love. Like The Boss's songs, Buckner's words are full of intimacy. The songs say what they need to say, and don't overstay their welcome. The personal nature of the both men's lyrics make it seem as though the singer has invited you into his home and read you the secrets he keeps hidden in a diary under the bed. However, Buckner is nowhere near as earnest as Springsteen. His words often are non-linear ramblings that do better at creating a mood than giving concrete descriptions. "Tough is as she does, won't you slump on over and stir my shuffle down" doesn't give anything away in the song "Home," but by it's end we know that home is not the place the singer wants to be. The song "Cautious Man" on Tunnel Of Love finds its character ("Billy") feeling much the same way, although Bruce uses his words to create a very literate story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The temptation is there to get out of the constricting nature of the home, and proceed down the road to unknown destinations. Later on the record, Springsteen sings "you have to learn to live with what you can't rise above" with a resigned willingness to stick it out and hope things take a turn for the better. Buckner is more easily willing to succumb to despair. "This stretch of 99, that takes so many lives, one of them was mine" is the refrain of "Lil' Wallet Picture" and shows it's singer has all but given up hope.

While lyrically similar in some ways, musically these two records are very different. Like Devotion And Doubt and Blood On The Tracks, Tunnel Of Love has a more minimal sound than much of the artists previous work. For only the second time, Springsteen wasn't working with the full E Street Band. He smartly opted for simpler arrangements on these intimate songs than Born In The U.S.A.'s arena ready anthems. Unfortunately, as was the case with much of the music of the 1980's, the production favors synthesizers and keyboards over acoustic instruments, which make the record sound somewhat dated 16 years later. For this reason Devotion And Doubt not only stands up to Tunnel Of Love, but, in this aspect, outshines it.

"And I found the end of the world of course, and it's not the end of the world of course, it's just a Vancouver divorce." With these words Gordon Downie's song reaches it's conclusion. It's satisfying to know that Downie's character is able to realize that life goes on. Richard Buckner, like Dylan and Springsteen before him, moved on as well. In the aftermath of devastation, he produced a true work of art. One that captures all the bitterness and sorrow he must have felt. He put himself into a truly elite group. Devotion And Doubt is a difficult listen. It is dark and brooding and full of spite. But it is also brutally honest and heartfelt. Richard Buckner is an artist who deserves to have his songs heard. He is also deserving of the opportunity to someday make an album full of celebratory love songs.

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