Shortly before Judee Sill died prematurely in her LA apartment in 1979, she left an entry in a journal. Forty-five years later, that journal was entrusted by Sill’s estate to Buck Meek after he appeared in a documentary about the singer. He turned this set of unfinished lyrics dedicated to Sill’s boyfriend and his daughter into “The Rainbow”, the final song on his third solo album. Lyrically, “The Rainbow” is a slender affair, a series of abstract, rhetorical questions that Meek grafts to a sweet, Sill-like folk setting. But the project shows the level of trust now afforded to Meek as a songwriter and interpreter thanks to his work with Big Thief as sympathetic collaborator to Adrienne Lenker. Meek clearly enjoys writing partnerships, and in the absence of Lenker he turns on Haunted Mountain to Jolie Holland, who co-writes five of the 11 songs, including the album’s three stand-outs – the title track, “Paradise” and “Lullabies”.
Although Haunted Mountain was recorded by much the same personnel as Meek’s previous solo album, 2021’s Two Saviors, it’s a very different record. That one was recorded in a house in New Orleans in a week, a quick and lo-fi approach that suited songs about loss and heartbreak. Haunted Mountain is largely about love of various kinds, and Meek and producer Mat Davidson (The Low Anthem/Twain) took the band to Sonic Ranch in Texas and gave the record a much more expansive, full-sounding presentation, a resounding and confident tone that matches these optimistic and often unfiltered emotions.
The one thing undercutting that is Meek’s voice, which, with striking nominative determinism, is faltering and a little hesitant, with a high-pitched country edge that recalls Slim Whitman via Hank Williams. On songs like the Neil Young-inspired “Cyclades” – with rollicking refrain “too many stories to remember”, this adds an intriguing edge, as if Meek isn’t entirely sure about what he is singing, lacking confidence not so much in the sentiment but more in himself for expressing it. On “Paradise”, he delivers a beautiful song entirely about the magic of looking in a lover’s eyes; the vocal catch accentuates the mood, that of somebody overcome by the hold another person has over them. “Where You’re Coming From” sees Meek sing of a friendship which holds no doubts, the crunching guitar providing the underlying note of confidence and happiness. A similar theme is covered on the sparkling “Didn’t Know You Then”, about falling in love, no ifs, no buts, no caveats – “I knew the moment that I saw you/That my life would never be the same”. There is much beauty in the simplicity and unfettered honesty of these statements of love.
Meek also explores Big Thief-style territory of greater ambiguity. The opening song, “Mood Ring”, is full of treated effects, delays and echoes that appear to be designed to unsettle, while country lament “Lagrimas” (Spanish for ‘tears’) is about a mysterious necromancer who sends a message to the dead on the wings of a bird. On “Secret Side”, he admits “I’ll never know the secret side of you”, while the Flaming Lips-style “Undae Dunes” boasts a slightly off-kilter, wild guitar and general sense of psychedelia that very much suits an enjoyably weird song about, maybe, space.
The two songs that really stick in the brain are “Haunted Mountain” and “Lullabies”. The first was largely written by Holland then finished by Meek, a song about the majestic appeal of nature and place with a hint of death. It’s set to a melody that rolls and yearns, with some lovely pedal steel by Davidson, and is as close to anthemic as Buck Meek is likely to get, recalling artists such as Phosphorescent or Jason Isbell. “Lullabies” is a wonderful track about the bond between mother and daughter. It’s beautifully observed by Meek, who writes with subtlety and sensitivity about childbirth – a subject many men would actively avoid, or not even consider worth exploring. In this case, Meek used Holland as more of a sounding board, and she added some colour but otherwise gave it the seal of feminine approval. It is, like much of Haunted Mountain, audacious in an understated way. Meek but not mild.