This was the first Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album I purchased, after enjoying a copy of Ease Down The Road that a friend made for me in 2002. I must have bought it in Japan because my CD copy came with a bonus track, “Forest Time,” the song from a 10” single released in 2002. I don’t think I really came to appreciate just how good this album is way back then, never quite playing it enough to dig into its roots and unearth the depth beneath. Instead it’s an album I’ve been playing on and off for ten years now. It was only 2007 in fact, when I finally became a ‘dedicated’ Bonnie fan, transformed you might say, or surprised. Yes, surprised, because Oldham albums are such slow growers, there always comes a point, after a year or two when I listen to a BPB album again, and go ‘wow, I hadn’t realized how good this is.’ His songs seems to burrow in deeply and incubate for a long time, then slowly percolate up through my consciousness. Master And Everyone is a short album at only 34 minutes.
The Way… is counted in, 1, 2, 3, 4, quietly, followed by a four chord movement with descending bass note and acoustic guitar arpeggio. Oldham sings, clearly, quietly, smoothly, a faint touch of sullen brooding in his voice, It’s a love song with a twist: the narrator professes his love for this woman, but says, “without children to grow / I can’t marry you, you know,” and in the chorus, invites her to “love me the way I love you,” which is to suggest a love without the legal binds inherent in a contractual marriage agreement decreed under the bogus authority of an unbelieved-in religion or a bourgeois system of legality. The music remains the same, bass and guitar, a somber but pleasing melody, with a quite beautiful simple chorus, a big “Love Me” followed by a long slow slide down into the word “you” followed by what sounds like a hum, or a cello or a hum and a cello blended so well, it’s hard to tell. So the narrator tells her to “take a year” and “find another man” who will love her “unloved parts.” What are her unloved parts? This isn’t elaborated upon, but in the light of the above it could either mean her sex or her heart. It’s ambiguous as to what he means by “the way I love you.” Either they have a sexual relationship, or they have a platonic love. My inclination is to assume the former, and that’s because of the first line, which hints at a coldness: “Winter comes and snow” – although this line could also be readying us for the whole album which falls under this wintry spell of lost love. The imperative verb in the chorus, “Love me the way I love you,” suggests he’s giving her an ultimatum – either you love for me for who I am (because that’s how I love you) or go find yourself another man, babe. Great opening song. There’s a live version as the B-side on the 2006 12″ single “Cold And Wet.”
Ain’t You Wealthy, Ain’t You Wise?… on this number vocal duties are shared between Oldham and female co-singer Marty Slayton, session singer hired from Nashville. Musically, once again it’s just bass and acoustic guitar, a simple, tolling note with squeaky fret-slide. It opens straight into its chorus: “Ain’t you wealthy, ain’t you wise? / Ain’t you made to give to me? / Ain’t it all good, enough to sing.” What does that even mean? It’s like saying, ‘hey, you’re wealthy and wise, and I’m not, so give some of that good stuff to me.’ And now the narrator is leaving, with joy inside him, on a “wondrous day.” But he immediately contradicts that, saying that “you’ve seen the evil eye / Hold on to me while I cry.” It’s a hard swath to mow, this song, and there’s scant little to grasp onto after this. He sings of a low moon watching him “where I go,” saying he’ll be “bound in blankets and blonde hair” and that his listener will be “shocked to find me there.” Where is “there” exactly? The chorus interrupts these very short verses several times. I can’t really fathom it. A song of dependence maybe or a song of independence? The song finishes thus: “There’s no pain to lament / There’s no dream undreamt.” Even that’s a bit fuzzy. If it’s all good, enough to sing, and there’s no pain, seems that the question in the song title is mildly mocking, as if to say, “hey ain’t you wealthy, ain’t you wise?” in an ironic way. The fact that this song is so similar in mood, temperament, tone, and instrumentation to “The Way” already suggests we’re on a thematic journey, or a cubist-like collection of points of view, positions and perspectives on the theme of the break-up. This song is part of the live set, Is It The Sea? 2008
Master And Everyone… yet again, bass and acoustic guitar, the mood just changed slightly to something dourer, a melody that fades away without resolving, until Oldham brings in a lighter higher prettier voice. Apparently the lyrics to this version of the break-up song come from a Verdi piece called “Italian Folk Tale.” When the narrator’s lover tells him “you don’t love me” and “you don’t want me,” he can only reply, “well I don’t love you,” and “I don’t want you.” She offers him a cliché; “there are other fish in the sea,” and suggests that, “another gathers roses for me.” So it’s a kick out the door for our Oldham-narrator, who far from lamenting this state of affairs, rejoices in his newfound freedom, singing “I will do what I want / I’m now free of master and everyone / Servant of all and servant to none” and later, “like a bird freed from his cage / All night and all day I’ll play and sing.” Furthermore, not only will he not “cry for you,” but he’ll brag about his fickleness, observing that “constancy and love is a joke.” He sounds rather bitter. And despite the apparent freedom, the moody melody contravenes that sense of release. This song opens the 2005 live album Summer In The Southeast and closes the 2008 live album, Is It The Sea?
Wolf Among Wolves… is a sort of frustrated love song, wherein the narrator complains that his partner loves not him, but only someone she thinks he is, a false version of himself: “She loves a soul / That I’ve never been … / And every day / When I come home to her / She holds a phantom.” He says that he doesn’t actually mind that she loves him in this way, but nevertheless laments that he must “live and walk / Unloved as I am,” asking “Why can’t I be loved as what I am / A wolf among wolves, and not as a man among men?” This “wolf” theme is starting to appear as a motif in Oldham’s work. There’s the whole transforming into a beast thing we saw with “Song For The New Breed” on I See A Darkness; there’s Oldham covering Kate Wolf’s “Brother Warrior“; there’s the titles of two albums, Superwolf and Wolfroy Goes To Town; and the first chapter of WO On BPB is titled “The Wolfman meets Abbot and Costello.” Once more, we have a soft slow bass note in support of a simple one-two one-two acoustic guitar part, and if “Master And Everyone” had doured the mood, this is like a natural progression towards solemnity without quite descending into stern or grim territory. There’s an odd little “do do do” part in the middle, sung in an amateurish falsetto. So the ex-lover-wife in this song craves “a home … a sheltered cave,” presumably a metaphor for safe domestic bliss, whereas the narrator says he’s never seen such a place, “not in my life / And not even in my dreams,” such is the rough life of a wolf-man. The chorus is really nice here though–it brings the optimism with risen tones of hope in Oldham’s voice. Subtle, miniaturist, and possibly my favourite track here. Three live versions of this song are available: Summer In The Southeast, 2005, Is It The Sea? 2008 and Funtown Comedown, 2009.
Joy And Jubilee… in some ways this is another song of release and freedom. Given the title, which is sung four times in a row each time we hit the chorus, it sounds positively celebratory, though one feels there’s sadness behind the song. “There’s no reason to be seen / No one knows where I have been,” he sings, and then explains that he’s talking about love. Now that’s he free, he’s independent again: “This is what I want to be / Everything inside of me,” and later, “Everything is on the wing” which makes me think of flight. He sings of “shoes” at one point and I’m reminded of the wanderer in “Meaulnes” from Days In The Wake, back out on the road, but I’m also reminded of the narrator about to hit the road, full of joy, in “Ain’t You Wealthy, Ain’t You Wise?” That narrator was suffering behind his joy; this one seems more ready to move on. The structure of the song is more dynamic than anything we’ve heard so far, which I guess is in keeping with the theme of the title. It’s bouncier, with rhythmic shifts, a louder clearer guitar part, with a really nice little acoustic riff heard after the chorus, and just before the end, some concrete musique, a gravelly sound rumbling in the background. Yet, for some reason, this is the only song that I’m not so fond of. It shouldn’t be. It brings a much needed mood change at just the right moment. I think it’s the chorus I don’t like. “Joy, joy and jubilee.” Why does that annoy me? Can’t explain it.
Maundering… and here he is again, playing the troubadour, back out wandering the scorched earth with his co-singer, both in soft voice over single acoustic guitar: “Maundering, I’m maundering / Evil eyes just passing through,” – is that the same “evil eye” we encountered in “Ain’t You Wealthy, Ain’t You Wise?” What is it with the evil eye, Will? Is it a roving eye? And just like in “Wolf Among Wolves,” where the narrator wants to be loved for who he really is, this narrator sings, “I’m going to find something true / Well I never wanted to be what you wanted to see / And I wish that she would be patient with me.” This is followed by a melodic guitar riff, while the strum continues, with a little skip in its stride. But this is a maundering song, and he’s off wandering, “to glorify everything good / And put right what is wrong, as I should.” But “there is no plan,” he says, “so I hold you in my hand till you see / Only you and…” and doesn’t quite finish the missing “me” from that sentence, which is an interesting poetic touch—he’s gone. Oldham’s voice throughout the whole album is the smoothest we’ve heard it, but not smoothing over, rather delicately balancing out the emotions, nuanced and sensitive to the words, and always quite sad sounding.
Lessons From What’s Poor… our poor old narrator is still leaving, can’t quite seem to get himself out that door. The first words here are “When I go / Follow my brother / He’s got the blood / Of father and mother.” Once more, he wants to be filled up with things that are “true and very good.” Again, a simple melody, two acoustic guitars, one playing rhythm, the other affecting a tune on the chorus, and most of the song has Oldham and Slayton singing in unison. Meanwhile he offers his hands to be kissed, asks her to see the man he really is: “See now, watch / How it is I am / Watch what I do / And how I stand.” All this before “we part.” So what’s the lesson? He takes his lessons from “what’s poor” because “that’s what God has put me (here) for.” Wealth on the other hand, “is death / Of that I’m sure.” And so, in the end, it’s “farewell.” Hey, we get a couple of taps of a tambourine, the first real percussion on the album thus far. Then that lovely little dual-note-plucked melody to end on. This album is playing out like a break-up album for sure; whether it has its roots in Oldham’s personal life remains irrelevant I guess, but the theme runs strong through the album.
Even If Love… sounds slightly different to everything that’s come before. The melody is plucked out, more of a syncopated thing, much slower, with a darker minor-key feel to it’s stop-start rhythm. Oldham says he wrote this song for PJ Harvey. Musically, but especially vocally, Oldham sounds a lot like Sufjan Stevens, especially as he sounds on Seven Swans. And there’s another connection here: Oldham contributed a track (“All The Trees Of The Field Will Clap Their Hands”) to Seven Swans Reimagined – a tribute version of said album released digitally in 2010. The lyrics are kind of complicated, and if it’s a song for Polly Harvey, it sounds like a love song, albeit one in deep recognition of the bruises love can bring. “Love” is mentioned a lot here. “I love the sound o’ wind” he sings, “and I have been yours / In foul and in praying / And I loved to look at you / From the side at night / With music playing.” A shimmer fades in and out briefly. Were those words meant for Harvey? Did they play concerts together? Was Oldham on the side of the stage swooning for her? “Love will protect you,” he says, but “a monster will get you,” he says, “and love does no good.” And if that wasn’t equivocal enough he goes positively bipolar on us: “And even if love were not what I wanted / Love would make love the thing most desired.” There’s no point in trying to fight it, he seems to be saying; when you’re in love, you’re in love. Such a quiet brave little number, very subdued and low of mood and mildly regretful or maybe even anti-human. “Even If Love” also appears on Summer In The Southeast.
Three Questions… is a goodie, though a strange effect on the vocal, where there’s two Oldham vocals, one of them slightly phased-out, like an echo through a speaker that’s been recorded by accident. The song possibly has the most immediate melody heard thus far. A vocal that rises and falls. It’s sung to a lover, and he asks her three quite simple, but perhaps difficult to answer, questions. Paraphrased, they go like this: “Say I found a piece of rock … and … put it in a locket … to hang around your neck … Do you think you would wear it?” That’s the first one. The second goes, “On the day … that the earth might open up … the birds have stopped their singing / And the insects have shut up / And all that’s left between us / Is some al-homdillillilie / Oh would you split it with me baby / So that I wouldn’t die?” Now what on earth is “al-homdillillilie”? Every website of Oldham lyrics has this word printed. Where did they get it from—did they all copy each other—there’s no lyric sheet in the LP, perhaps there’s one in the CD. One fellow thinks it could be “al-hamdulillah” which means “Praise be God” in Arabic, a phrase used in a similar way to “bless you” after someone sneezes. In between verses we get some groany harmonica-like blasts wailing in long noted tune with the guitar. Anyway, he wants to know if she’ll share it with him? I suppose it depends on whether she knows what he’s talking about. The last question is the best: “When everyone has called me out / And said I am the worst … Would you say, ‘He’s okay / He’s better than the rest / He’s innocent in God’s eyes / And in mine, he is the best’?” I guess it’s a test of some kind. If she can answer yes to all three questions, then you’re an able-minded woman capable of loving our bonnie narrator. Or have I missed the point? Again, a one-two one-two guitar rhythm keeps the song ticking along. “Three Questions” was re-recorded for the Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy 1o”, 2012.
Hard Life… is indeed quite a sad song, although it’s actually the catchiest song here. Once again, Slayton joins for the chorus, to great effect, and makes the song sound the most ‘country’ too. Furthermore the song has a lightly thumping rhythm, the only song on the album to use a beat. “Hard Life” opens straight into more of that break-up territory: “And it’s a hard life / For a man with no wife.” But wife or no wife, “God makes you live.” This is okay though, because without a life, “you don’t even have / Your tears to give.” So rest easy; breaking up is a necessary part of life. Nevertheless, “it don’t take long … for the demons to come and visit me,” because “I’ve got my problems / Sometimes love don’t solve them / And I end each day in a song.” Singing helps. And perhaps that’s why he’s beyond blaming her; he’s willing to accept that he’s “a hard man / To live with sometimes,” and that “maybe it ain’t in me / To make you a happy wife of mine.” Does he push it too far? Does he turn it into irony? There’s just a hint or more of bitterness in these next lines: “And maybe you’ll kill me / Honey I don’t blame you / If I were in your place / Maybe that’s what I would do.” In the end he just wants to be released, but unlike the narrator of “Joy And Jubilee” he hasn’t really shaken off his grief after all: “Let me go / Let me leave / I don’t know / But I might lose / I might bum,” and “let me go … on my own / Let me drown / Let me go / Go where you don’t know.” These last few lines are sung out in suspended notes, trailing out and offered like appeasements. Again, like so many of the songs here, it takes him a whole album to leave. And even the way these last few lines are worded, you can still imagine him standing at the door with a pleading look on his face. A great song, almost poppy.
There’s no denying it—not only does this read and sound like a cheerless break-up album, but the various Oldham-narrators across these ten songs harbour a certain amount of resentment too, and despite their best efforts to pick themselves up and walk out the door and hit the road and find freedom and bring themselves joy, it just ain’t happening, yet. Because there’s a grieving process to be got through once the bitterness and anger and hurt and pain subside. If you think of this album as a journey through those emotions experienced post-being let go, the awful tumble and roll of not knowing just how much blame to weather yourself and how much, or even whether, blame can be attributed to one’s ex, then it rings pretty true. There’s actually very little variety across these ten songs too, whether that be theme, instrumentation or melody, but because the songs are all around the 3~4 minute mark, it doesn’t really matter. Nothing lingers too long, and I like an album that broods on a theme. It’s a very quiet album too, rarely rising above a hushed way of singing, almost like a meditation. I’ve always liked this album. We ditch the glum mood in favour of revisiting the past with his 2004 effort, Sings Greatest Palace Music.