Peter Buck has been the most prolific of the former members of R.E.M., although most of his activity has been fairly low key. He’s been in the studio and out on the road with Robin Hitchcock and the Venus 3, The Minus 5, the Baseball Project, the Filthy Friends and more. He’s released several vinyl only solo records on the tiny Mississippi Records label. Buck lives part time in Todos Santos, Mexico where he curates a laid back music festival bringing together a lot of artists Buck has worked with over the years and local acts, all to benefit the Palapa School.
Joseph Arthur has been a participant in the Todos Santos festival, which led to this collaborative project. Joseph left one of his guitars in Todos Santos after the 2016 festival. When he went to retrieve it, he stayed with Buck and they went on a songwriting bender. Everything was done quickly with Buck and Arthur coming up with the basic songs (the lead off track “I Am the Moment” was written between sound check and performance at a gig). With the basic tracks laid down, Arthur took the songs back to his studio to flesh out the tunes with drums, synths and vocals.
“I Am the Moment” opens with a signature Buck guitar riff harkening back to classic R.E.M.. The buoyant tune sets the tone for the record. Arthur’s lyrics about spiritual growth and striving are themes that recur throughout the album. While I don’t think it was intentional, the fanboy geek in me can’t help but associate it with the 50th Anniversary Doctor Who special. That story revolved around a doomsday weapon that developed consciousness and encouraged the Doctor (three of them) to find an alternative to mass destruction. Lines like “Just ask yourself, am I aware and see what happens next” and “find a kind of spiritual plan too go beyond space and time and all of this predicament” do make me think Joseph may be a Whovian.
“Are You Electrified” is an anthem to persistence and spiritual growth. Joseph sings “Are you Electrified, is your Third Eye open?” and uses the metaphor of jumping the turnstile to catch a subway for seizing opportunity. It’s one of many NYC references that crop up on the album.
“If You Wake Up in Time” points to the other recurring theme of the album, grappling with the darkness that threatens to overwhelm us. Joseph asks “Cause you hate almost everyone, so how come you want to waste my time?” He doesn’t have an answer beyond suggesting “save your life if you wake up in time.”
That darkness is most clearly defined on “American Century”. Generally, the tunes on Arthur Buck are infused with optimism and the promise of change. “American Century” comes close to succumbing to the despair of living in Trumps America. “When you needed love, all you got was pain… Social media diplomacy leaving Puerto Rico out in the dark. Tax the middle and give to the rich as the devil eats the rest of your heart.” The song is a lament to the suicidal policies that are destroying America and questioning why there isn’t a more active opposition to the obvious evils. I can’t help but hear “Wide Awake in November” as hoping for an electoral sweep to drive out as many of the reality show politicians as possible. “Wide Awake in November” is a quiet, somber tune suggesting that the folks who need to be awake may well still be asleep.
There is a lot going on here. Arthur Buck is an album that has been stuck in my player for weeks. It’s been awhile since I’ve felt compelled to take a magnifying glass to a lyric sheet and ruminate on how the meaning of specific words is colored by the sonic choices the artists made.
I’ll close by warping the old American Bandstand cliché; I like it. It’s got a good beat and you can think to it.