Betty Buckley’s Beautiful ‘Story Songs’

Every song can tell a story, but only certain artists know how to make those stories sing. Betty Buckley has been master of the story song ever since her first ‘Memory’ three and a half decades ago. In the ensuing time, she has perfected her craft on stage and screen, and perhaps most notably (if unheralded) on record. Her new double CD ‘Story Songs’ is her 17th recording and finds the artist at the height of her story-telling talent.

Topical issues of race, gender, relationships, self-fulfillment and difference each play a part in this musical journey, and Buckley is a virtuoso of making each of these songs into more than a story. In her skilled hands, they become a revelation – a journey that sparkles with self-discovery along the way, and by the end, in spite of the immense enjoyment and enthralling musical prowess at work, you’ve learned a little something too. Mostly about yourself. That’s the power of a story song.

The jazz-inflected shifting time signatures of the first couple of cuts are gorgeously restless, and Buckley is on top of them at every unexpected turn. The French delicacy of ‘Chanson’ reveals a wisdom won from decades of experience and experimentation. Buckley has long been one of the great interpreters of songs and roles (as anyone who was lucky enough to witness her take on Norma Desmond, and how wondrously it differed from all who came before and after her, can attest) and she gets to put all of that into magnificent display here.

Inhabiting wildly-disparate characters requires a deftness in acting and singing, and to truly connect with a song requires a bit of a personal connection too.  ‘Old Flame’ brings the fiery spark that underlies everything she does to riotous combustion, with a wink and a hidden firearm. Written specifically for her, it’s a cheeky warning, but how cheeky is it? The lethal machinations of the heart and its wounded power touch on Buckley’s witty pondering of darkness. A delicious surprise ending finds her in a different state of torment, but the torment of the heart remains, and it fuels the more melancholy pieces in moving fashion.

With tinges of country and elements of jazz, Buckley is originally a Texas girl, but New York will always be her home too. She traverses all of our great country, in spirit and in voice, and in the end she finds some sort of grace, which is at the heart of every Buckley record. Here, the transcendent ‘Prayer in Open D’ offer glimpses of salvation and redemption, beginning with a guitar-driven moment of healing, a pause on the first disc for contemplation and forgiveness. She speaks of “the valley of sorrow in my soul” – a touchstone for so much of her work. No one else gives such vocal tenderness to the notion of loss, of faded regret, yet she pulls such beauty from the notes, such nuances from each word, that it lives up to its name – a prayer and a bit of musical grace.

‘September Song’ brings to mind her autumnal jazz work of 1997’s rich ‘Much More’ album. Here, it finds even greater effect, reminding us that Ms. Buckley knows the power of pause and quiet, and that what is in-between the notes is often just as important as what is being sung. That genius of phrasing and timing is the sort of technical mastery that often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, but they are an integral part of what makes her so great.

A song as tried and true as ‘How Long Has This Been Going On’ may be virtually impossible to cover in any new way, so Buckley transforms it into an instrumental exercise in exorcism, with its meandering piano introduction and sly sliding into the familiar cadence of melody. At one point or another, most of us are going to be hurt by love – a sad but vital component of the damn emotion – and Buckley is able to personify that into something that makes it bearable as she begins ‘Practical Arrangement’, or at the very least relatable, and there is comfort and healing in that. It’s the most powerful mark a piece of music can make.  Resignation and realization, but always with the hope of something better, the hope of something more. She still wants the magic, she still wants the fireworks. We all do. There is no answer, and that’s where this music lives – in that tenuous nether-region of what may or may not be. The field of hopes. The land of dreams. The elusive, tantalizing hold that only music and voice can produce.

‘Bird on a Wire’ may be her newest self-anthem.  A little battered, a little beaten, but no less ready for the next battle, Buckley’s voice is a pristine clarion, floating ethereally into the pantheon of brilliance and studied vocal performance. She loses herself a little bit too, and that’s the most beautiful part.  “I’ve tried in my way to be free,” she sings like her proverbial meadowlark, and that indomitable human spirit brings it all together.

As befitting a collection entitled ‘Story Songs’ the juiciest bits come on Disc Two, whereby Buckley does tell a few tales of her own, and if you’ve ever been to one of her shows, these are often the most telling and enjoyable moments.  A moving tribute to Stephen Bruton leads into the brutally beautiful ‘Too Many Memories’.  A revealing, and surprisingly touching memory of Howard Dasilva sets up the penultimate song by Joni Mitchell. Taking the torch from Broadway royalty, she closes with Stephen Sondheim’s ‘I’m Still Here’, prefaced by a hilarious, and profoundly human, Elaine Stritch story.

A story song is much more than that which tells a simple story. There needs to be a profound change that occurs from the beginning to the end. A realization or a lesson or a quiet shift in stance. It need not be life-shattering or upending, it simply needs to move a person to a different place. Ms. Buckley has been moving us all for years, and this set is testament to the power of her grace, the power of her story, and the power of her song.

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