Canadian rapper Buck 65's latest is a vivid, long look backward to 1957, an indication that many of our half-century-old absurdities and anxieties haven't dissipated.
The Canadian rapper Buck 65 (Richard Terfry) seems uncomfortable staying put. When he began making waves in Halifax, he was a college-radio DJ. Before long his own songs began appearing on playlists. Listeners who heard his rasp and felt the grit in his songs heralded him as the new Tom Waits--as if tragedy had befallen the old one. One moment he's in America, performing witty blues-rap, the next he's in Paris hanging out with Feist. As the talking points began to catch up--this was a border ruffian who flits across the urban-rural musical divide--he was already squirming away. He's now directing shorts and composing film scores. Forward-looking ventures into electronica are on the way.
But Situation, by most counts Buck 65's 11th release, is a long look backward. Fifty years, to be precise. He sees 1957 as a once-in-a-century watershed (kind of like 1968), with both the space race and the Beat movement muscling into history. The album even borrows from Allen Ginsberg's counterculture lament "Howl" with Buck 65 deadpanning, in his smoke-singed growl, the iconic words: "The best minds of my generation were destroyed by madness." Little tributes to the period seem to rain chaotically over the canvas, only to be reordered into Buck's suave collage of rhyme and reference, equal parts Ginsberg and Wikipedia.
Vibrant as the cut-and-paste may be, Buck 65's monotone radiates fatigue, not exalted world-weariness. It doesn't help that he unfurls his wordy sentences in the same, bored rhythm. Adding a little energy, producer Skratch Bastid's splashing, piston-like breakbeats keep the songs from inducing sleep. But Situation's "return to drums" aesthetic can work against the songs, too, because it seems both emptily nostalgic, old-school for the sake of being old-school, and anachronistic, given the early 1980s snares hardly fit the late 1950s allusions. It can't justify itself. There may be pianos ("1957", "Ho-Boys") and guitars ("The Rebel", "The Outskirts") but they are mostly subdued to the boom-bap. This sound marks a shift not only from the atmospheric mopefest 2005's Secret House Against the World, but from Buck 65's Lynchian, country-fried magnum opus, Talkin' Honky Blues.
Indie rappers have a habit of bellowing sermons at their audiences. Buck 65 takes a less direct approach. He lets loose at 2007 by showing that many half-century-old absurdities and anxieties haven't left us. America remains as sexually Puritan as ever, we're reminded, while the threat of annihilation still seeps into everyday life. He also makes his points through role-playing, inhabiting a two-bit pornographer on "Shutter Buggin'"-- where bondage pin-up Bettie Page is the subject (well, the object)-- and a vice-squad relic on "Spread 'Em". The points aren't always coherent, but they are always vividly wrought, full of mischief but touched by sadness.
His best role, the dreamlike tale of a Travis Bickle in the making, "Mr. Nobody" reveals Buck 65 at his most poignant and, yes, grown-up. An album full of these character sketches-- with their gray areas and their slow-burning, cinematic arrangements-- would have made an astute and intimate work of social commentary. Instead the argument buckles not only under the weight of references, but also the tired flow and beats. Favoring the easy gravity of images and ideas over well-crafted sounds and stories, Situation finally drowns in its nostalgia.