Photo by Steven Tietgen
Scivic Rivers is the musical nom de plume of American singer-songwriter Randy Bickford; the new self-titled album is his seventh LP.
Bickford's songs have earned him wide recognition from fellow lifer musicians and critics alike. Pitchfork described his writing as "tracing a single thought or sketching a single image throughout the course of several bars, building suspense and making you wait patiently for the pay-off".
Scivic Rivers represents the next epoch of Bickford’s work. In retrospect, it makes sense: he released his initial output as the Strugglers, often emergent and spare as the bones of his songwriting hardened. In time, he found himself upright and walking in his craft, releasing a pair of albums under his own name, Brice Randall Bickford, still personal but now breathing with life and rich arrangements. But all walking is controlled falling, and the coming years would invite and even require a new horizon.
David Berman, one of Bickford's favorite singers, once gave him some unsolicited advice: as a way to be heard, consider a pen name that can’t be ignored. While recording new songs with longtime collaborator Scott Solter and a group of veteran NC Triangle musicians, Bickford spontaneously wrote down the words “Scivic Rivers.” It was an homage to Berman’s Purple Mountains, and partly inspired by the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. A portmanteau pairing human governance with natural rhythms, it hints at a world off-kilter. For Bickford, these new songs felt like a high-water mark, and warranted a new name that gestured to failing infrastructures and the impassibility of nature reflected in the material.
While writing what would become the new album, he and his wife welcomed their first child into a world whose fissures were already revealing themselves. Trusted institutions, both civic and personal, proved themselves to be fragile, as the plates of society shifted underfoot and Bickford’s father passed away after a six-month struggle with lung cancer. The songs shared a common thread: the labor of starting a family in a society experiencing slow-rolling collapse.
The resulting record pulls together disparate elements in both its arrangements and lyrical themes, flowing with ease through the pages of the American songbook. Featured instruments such as harmonica, pedal steel, and John Pffifner’s array of guitars finish each other’s sentences. The pointillistic arrangements, reminiscent of Talk Talk and Japan, oscillate around the central, guiding character of Bickford’s voice, which glides from rich baritone to expressive tenor.
The slow canoe ride of the first track, “High Season,” establishes one of the record’s motifs: an ongoing shift between the micro and the macro. “Our Kin” focuses on the former, offering the first of several family vignettes across the record. Moving from the elegant disco of “Frontier Forever," with its study of the layers of the country's natural and political history, to a portrait of family conflict from the perspective of middle age in “Caught Up Blues”, the album turns its focus to the coming generation and new beginnings in its second half. "Shenandoah Granite" again weaves together the global and the intimate, hearing intimations of climate grief as a couple slowly drifts apart. And "Blood Vessel" – in some ways the record's definitive statement – mingles family warmth with dread for the future, facing feelings of helplessness in the midst of horror: "I’ve been asking ever since our blood/ was born /What did I become, what did I become/a vessel for?” The final track, “Instruction After the Fact,” takes on the timeworn genre piece of offering advice to the next generation, in the context of the narrator’s unfinished, still unfolding past, set to the disquieting pulse of an Optigan synth.
Scivic Rivers marks a new chapter for Bickford, but also stands as the culmination of a life’s work in songwriting, a reinvention through patient labor and deep time.