Arthur Buck is the union of two rock ‘n’ roll lifers connected by passion, if not status. The heavy lifter in the pair is Peter Buck, who made his fame and fortune as the guitarist in R.E.M., the rare ’80s underground band who crossed over into the mainstream and maintained popularity for decades. Joseph Arthur, his collaborator in Arthur Buck (if you need an explanation for the band name, you’re not paying attention), has never received anything approaching Buck’s good fortune. Arthur has been grinding away for two decades, churning out records that gained more acclaim than attention. Despite a steady drumbeat of good reviews—check out Metacritic, where he routinely places in the high 70s and low 80s, positive notices by any measure—Arthur never cracked the Top 100 of Village Voice’s annual Pazz & Jop critics poll or the Top 200 of the Billboard charts.
Given Joseph Arthur’s continual underperformance, he could use the profile boost Buck provides in Arthur Buck, but such superstar endorsements aren’t uncommon for the singer-songwriter. Peter Gabriel became a fan of Arthur’s early on, signing him to his Real World label, while T-Bone Burnett and Tchad Blake produced 2000’s Come to Where I’m From. All those early records had an artsy veneer that’s notably missing on Arthur Buck. Blame it on Buck, perhaps. After R.E.M. split in 2011, Buck fashioned himself as a rock nomad, cherishing the chance to finally play noisy, simple rock ‘n’ roll with old and new friends alike.
Arthur is Buck’s latest stop on his eternal walkabout, following Filthy Friends—his collaboration with Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker—by a matter of months. Where that group’s 2017 album Invitation was rooted in the nervy, electric spirit of the American underground, Arthur Buck is a cheerfully weathered classic rock record, indebted to the sounds of the ’70s, many of them emanating from David Bowie. Despite a few coy winks at the Thin White Duke—”The Wanderer” floats upon harmonies that conjure the creepy, otherworldly backing vocals of “The Bewlay Brothers”—and Arthur’s enduring hero Lou Reed, Arthur Buck isn’t an act of homage as much as it is two kindred spirits coming together on common ground.
Perhaps this duo share similar tastes and outlook, but their affection for dissonance gives Arthur Buck a kick. Buck deflates Arthur’s tendency to indulge in self-styled poetry, which occasionally result in lyrics that are too on the nose: “American Century” stumbles upon its images of “nuclear rain,” social media, and “Puerto Rico out in the dark.” Still, Buck’s belief that the first take is the best take means this record is livelier than anything Arthur has previously issued. Perhaps it’s to be expected that the glam-inflected tunes, such as the opening punch of “I Am the Moment” and “Are You Electrified?” swagger—they’re classicist rock songs, all about riffs and hooks—but even when the tempo slows, as it does on the lovely “Forever Falling,” there’s a hint of grit that keeps things from getting too sweet. It may be loose, but Arthur Buck isn’t nearly as goofy or garagey as the three vinyl-only albums Peter Buck has released since 2012. Arthur steers the guitarist back toward considered craft, shaping the contours of not just the compositions, but the recordings themselves, which are beefier and bigger than anything Buck has done since departing R.E.M.
Despite this emphasis on craft, Arthur Buck isn’t a fussy affair. The album feels as if it was knocked out within a week, which is at least true of its songs: Many of the tunes emerged after the duo’s chance meeting in Todos Santos, the Mexican town Buck calls his second home. This sense of discovery shines through the record’s layers of polish. Its immediacy makes Arthur Buck a rarity in 2018: a record that wears its messy heart, as pleased with its flaws as it is with its power.