Richard Buckner established himself as a supremely gifted singer and songwriter with a singular voice (both as a lyricist and a vocalist) on his first three albums (1994's Bloomed, 1997's Devotion + Doubt, and 1998's Since), so it came as a surprise to many when he picked an unlikely collaborator for his next project. After reading Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, a collection of poems first published in 1915 that allows the deceased residents of a small-town graveyard speak of their lives, secrets, and disappointments, Buckner chose to set a number of the poems to music, and eventually his interpretations of 18 of the Spoon River verses became his fourth album, The Hill. While Buckner clearly had deep respect for Masters' work, making only the most minimal changes to his text, musically this is a challenging set, ranging from the stark a cappella of "Ollie McGee" and the nuanced folky textures of "Elizabeth Childers" to the thick, noisy guitar and electronic treatments of "Johnnie Sayre." Buckner even goes so far as to interpret some of the poems without words, as the unfaithful "Mrs. Merritt" is represented with a bit of ghostly organ and curious squeals, and some muscular guitar strumming sums up the tale of her murderous lover, "Elmer Karr." In concept and execution, The Hill found Buckner exploring new territory and experimenting with new techniques (including recording much of it at home on a digital portastudio, as well as collaborating with Joey Burns and John Convertino on some tracks), and some bits work better than others. But The Hill is a sterling example of Buckner's gifts as an interpretive performer, an area he doesn't explore often, and he brilliantly inhabits the characters of Masters' poems, especially the drunken and luckless "Oscar Hummel," the eloquently lovelorn "Reuben Pantier," and a mother to be shorn of all hope, "Elizabeth Childers." With The Hill, Richard Buckner began stepping out in a new creative direction, and if the album isn't as immediately effective or consistent as his first three offerings, at its best this is as powerful and poignant as anything he's ever released.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming