A few weeks ago, R.E.M.'s Instagram account shared photos from the band's 2008 U.S. tour. One of the snaps happened to have been taken at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, and featured guitarists Peter Buck and Johnny Marr—the latter then touring with opening act Modest Mouse—intently playing R.E.M.'s 1986 fan-favorite "Fall On Me."
This duo has provided plenty such memorable moments over the years. During the '80s, Marr's ringing guitar anchored the Smiths' melancholy swoon, while Buck wielded his mighty Rickenbacker in R.E.M., providing nimble color commentary to Michael Stipe's elliptical poetry. With the recent release of Buck’s Arthur Buck and Marr’s Call the Comet, each man has continued to forge new creative paths.
This is large part due to their penchant for drawing on vibrant collaboration for inspiration. Marr was an integral part of multiple other bands (including Electronic, The The, and the Cribs, in addition to Modest Mouse), and remains a go-to sideman who's popped up on tracks by acts as diverse as Billy Bragg and Girls Aloud. Post-R.E.M. split, Buck has treated songwriting as an essential life building block: He's made solo records, co-produced albums (including the Jayhawks' Paging Mr. Proust), continued on as a member of the long-running group Minus 5, and formed a slew of new bands—including Filthy Friends, The No Ones, and now Arthur Buck.
"I don't really believe in side projects," Buck told NPR back in April. "Anything I do is something I am completely focused on in the moment."
A collaboration with the New York-based dusky folk-rocker Joseph Arthur, a long-time R.E.M. associate, Arthur Buck is a distinctive project on Buck's extensive c.v. The duo's excellent self-titled debut is grounded in an earth-toned mosaic of snaky programmed beats that encompass funky hip-hop ("If You Wake Up In Time"), soulful hopscotch ("Wide Awake In November"), and bone-dry blues ("The Wanderer"). Atop these vibrant rhythms, the musicians pile on heaps of guitars, keyboards and sound effects, as if fortifying a dam.
The ways the musicians meld their strengths elevate the album. R.E.M. fans will certainly recognize classic Buck-isms (the elegiac acoustic riffs of "I Am the Moment" and "Can't Make It Without You," moments where he counts off the start of songs), but these elements are malleable, and bend to the whims of Arthur's empathetic, gravelly vocals. The resulting music careens between psychedelic folk, mystical rock 'n' roll catharsis, and Peter Gabriel-caliber atmospherics.
Call the Comet is Marr's third solo album—fourth if you count Johnny Marr & The Healers' oft-forgotten 2003 LP Boomslang—and it’s also singular within the guitarist's catalog. Although he offers an abundance of trademark genial chime, Marr also chisels out an array of distinct moods. "Hey Angel" strikes a dramatic pose courtesy of crunchy glam riffs, while "Bug" arrives at the intersection of snappy disco-funk and melodic jangle. In contrast, "New Dominions" is murky and introverted, a gothic rock nod fractured by echoing vocals and twitching rhythms, while the slow-boiling "Actor Attractor" is underlined by wary synths and dark pulses.
As a vocalist, Marr strikes a balance of nonchalance and urgency—even at his most plaintive and keening, it never feels like he'd break (much of) a sweat. Yet Call the Comet grapples with how to respond to the horrors swirling around today's society. In typical Marr fashion, the lyrics are no-nonsense emotional excavations about surviving turmoil, ranging from a pledge of faith ("Walk into the Sea") to grasping into hope ("A Different Gun," which was in progress when the Manchester Arena bombing occurred).
"I didn’t want to make an overtly political, preachy record," Marr told t he Guardian . "So it became more about the feeling of the issues, the emotional response... I was also reminded that music can be about escapism, and defiance. This record is my defiance."
Arthur Buck is defiant in a similar way: Instead of giving into personal darkness, it chooses to declare optimism, and believes in the power of reinvention, redemption and transformation. "Where's the revolution?" Arthur asks in "American Century," a Bowie-esque funk swerve which starts off with the reminder, "They can't erase you/Or break you down." Connection is another major theme: "I'll give you a hand," Arthur offers on "I Am The Moment," while "Can't Make It Without You" yearns for a brighter time.
These sentiments aren't labored-over, but their primal nature lingers. "This record has a vitality to it that is surprising to everyone who hears it," Arthur told NPR. "And I think it's down to we aren't just tired old cats who are bored and fucking around. We are people who still hold onto music for survival."
That last part is crucial, and goes a long way to explain the appeal of both Arthur Buck and Call the Comet. At their peak popularity, both R.E.M. and the Smiths were the kind of bands that felt like life rafts for anyone who felt disenfranchised or alienated by the mainstream. It's deeply comforting that both Buck and Marr continue to provide emotional solace (albeit for new and different reasons) and derive such deep meaning from their own art. It certainly leads to engaged, passionate music—but it also produces rich, resonant sentiments that endure.