Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
The first recorded collaboration between singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur and guitarist Peter Buck of R.E.M. fame isn't a concept album in the strictest sense. But many of its songs do revolve around a central theme: The messy metaphysical process of getting "woke."
There are songs with mindfulness-meditation refrains ("I Am the Moment"), and songs that equate awareness with survival ("If You Wake Up in Time"). There are sober looks at the aftershocks of the 2016 election ("I was asleep when they disabled the golden rule") and expressions of dismay over the assorted dramas of current U.S. governance. There are observations about broader changes in the culture: In the middle of "American Century," Arthur laments "It used to be about what you could do. Now it's all about what you can get."
And, naturally, there are expressions of alarm over the numbing fascinations arriving every second via smartphone: "So meditate when you start your day, and don't look into your phone to make a play. / It's just a crazy making crazy train, Open up your third eye and stop being insane."
Arthur has long been a trenchant, if caustic, observer of human nature. He can go dark when the subject warrants — and stay there. The quickly written songs of Arthur Buck, which grew out of an impromptu collaboration over a few days in Mexico, treat weighty ideas with a disarmingly light tone. They're resolute and forward-looking, sunny and often sly wake-up calls that use a full complement of tricks — Oasis-style rock anthems, hip-hop pastiche, odd funk pockets — to lure listeners into the desired zone of expanded awareness.
It's not easy to transform abstract metaphysical notions about consciousness into soul-galvanizing music. That's where Peter Buck proves clutch. Drawing on steady-strumming acoustic guitars and needlepoint-precise electrics and other textures that will be familiar to R.E.M. fans, Buck provides support that untethers Arthur's refrains from predictable rock-song moorings.
Even when the vibe is thick — as on the Bowie-haunted "The Wanderer" or Talking Heads backbeat of "If You Wake Up in Time" — the accompaniment has a floating quality, hinting at multiple possible directions. Among Buck's many gifts is the ability to frame songs with blissed-out, hovering drones and simple punctuations; here he guides the listener from the emotional apexes to moments of repose without calling much attention to the structure he's built. When Arthur hits an important idea, Buck is there with his six-string highlighter to reinforce it. And when it's time to translate the zenspeak, Buck lets his guitar do the talking — there are several absolutely thrilling eight-bar solo breaks here.
Of course just listening (to this, to anything) isn't going to bring instant enlightenment. But the artful songs of Arthur Buck can maybe open some doors. They cast the search for perspective as a kind of quest, and suggest that in a destabilized environment like this one, the first step in "being the change" involves simply seeking a precious moment of clarity.