…is the prolific Will Oldham’s debut album. Looking at that album cover, it occurs to me that Oldham has spent the rest of his career grooming himself to look like that lion. I found my copy of this in a sale bin for twenty Hong Kong dollars—cheap, in a crumbly cardboard box on the floor in the back of a hi-fi jazz/classical store, which seems nicely appropriate. Though I’d heard his work many times in the 90s, I didn’t join the Oldham commune until Master And Everyone (2003) and from there continued to keep up with everything he’s done. He’s probably come to be my favourite recording artist these days. His albums always take a year or two to fully develop in my mind, but when they do I’m smitten for life. In 2011 I decided to work backwards and acquire all of his 90s work too. Thus, this is the first review of what is going to be a huge undertaking.
You can quite easily divide Oldham’s career into pre-1999 and post-1999, when he not only switched from the Palace moniker to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, but also changed his sound to something more commercially viable and started singing without the fragile croaky folk-country waver of his Palace days. I saw him live once, in a Dunedin pub called the Oriental, around 94. [Correction – it was 1997. Ed.] I don’t much remember the concert but I remember he walked past me at one point, grumpy, concerned about sound and cables. I can’t even remember if he was balded or bearded back then, but I remember he had a distinct aura that made him stand out from the crowd.
After listening to There Is No One… and perusing the lyrics, I came up with the (erroneous) theory that Oldham chose to begin a musician’s career after immersing himself in something like Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, as if wiping the slate clean in a move to begin from the begin. The lyrics seem to tell old folkie tales full of strange hillbilly-type characters. Add to that Oldham’s lo-fi aesthetic, persistent banjo and creaky, out-of-tune warble and you’ve got yourself an alternative history of the 1890s (say) as re-envisioned by a playful faux-eccentric from Louisville, Kentucky in 1993. The album is a mellow, country affair, “Appalachian“–an adjective Oldham rejects in favour of “English/Scottish/Irish folk balladry” (which incidentally was the source of much of Dylan’s early material) where lyrics, instrumentation and feel are key, while melodies are downplayed. It’s all about the aesthetic. It’s a good album but not an easy one to love. Many songs here have still not clicked with me beyond hearing them in the moment, but let’s do the Bumstead on it and find out…
Idle Hands Are The Devil’s Playthings… is probably the only immediately hummable song here, with a title/lyric that can be traced back to Chaucer. It’s short, punchy, with a quirky broken vocal, and banjo. It takes a few seconds to begin, as if each musician is checking his instrument. One gets the feeling that Will Oldham must play guitar to fend off those “idle hands,” while the placement of the song suggests it’s to be a manifesto for his chosen career path. When Oldham sings about an “overflowed life,” we wonder – is that one in which songcraft spills out of the mouth creating “a troubled liar’s nest”? It has been said, after all, that Oldham is the ultimate solipsist. I tend to think the man is part deliberate obscurist, part-comedian and part-automatist. I often get the feeling that Oldham jots his lyrics down really quickly—the first thought that comes into his head kind of thing, and cares little for what message he’s sending—death of the author and all that. To wit: “It happens now, in total darkness / And now it’s keeping on going.” What is “it” that “happens now”? “It” could be the devil—a catch in the details, something mysterious. Non-sequiturs borne of fragmentation are the man’s stock in trade. Yet lines taken individually yield powerful sentiments; for the speaker of this catchy banjo-driven number, “the devil lives deep down,” which is another way of saying “the devil is in the details.” The rhythm of the song starts up energetically, but each verse slowly winds down, stops and starts up again. This song also appears on live album Funtown Comedown, 2009.
Long Before… in which Oldham, hinting at the sepia-toned past in the title, sings about change, decay, as if he’s some kind of depressed country bumpkin of an age gone by, a Carolina mountain man, hillbilly hick. In this song, mother lost her looks, the boxwoods disappeared, Dad burned the house, the old cosy path is knotted and gone, and no gals call upon him anymore. Unfortunately this is what Oldham’s speaker and his sister have inherited from their beaten father, and wicked Mama, whose “breast ain’t holy no more” because she’s “that virgin cunt, that sainted whore / Whose piss we have slept under / Whose smell we have bore.” The upshot? “We…will drift along tongueless unhappiness at last,” sings Oldham in his antique croon among the enervated instrumentation. If the lyrics are an allegory, I read it as an ironic lament for an unhappy childhood. It’s natural to think that thirty years past one’s childhood, those years in the 70s can seem practically medieval in contrast to the relative technology-enhanced ease of adulthood in 2012. This is a long slow song, with a faint but apt kind of old-style melody, and really quite affecting with its softly strummed guitar, banjo, and a weary, sad vocal… “ohhh, long before.” A favourite.
I Tried To Stay Healthy For You… is a song in which Oldham uses the archaic form of “I wish” when he sings “I would I had the means to make / Our persons one together.” The persona here is either threatening his lover with a cane while she perches on a barrel, or he’s suffered terribly while she’s been cheating on him, or if not that, she’s at least been singing “to them all.” But, “I know when your song’s over / You’ll come back to this bed of ours / And be my only lover.” It’s a simple enough song about jealousy and warding off loneliness, while hinting at something dark or threatening. There’s a distinct change in the quality of sound from the previous two songs. This sounds like it’s been recorded live in a bar sans audience. It has a dreary pace, more banjo, and quite lo-fi. The vocals are murky, muffled. Not much of a tune.
The Cellar Song… hints at more subtextual creepiness, this time a song about the cellar where the wine is kept, from the point of view of a daughter who sings about her eyes “pushed protruding” and “a’bursting,” her “fair skin now tainted before planks,” and her “chapped lips, small and cracked.” All of this has something to do with the cask of wine the mother’s offered up to her daughter and her husband. But the last line is a weird one: “Let’s, children, together, let’s let ’em thrive in the cellar.” This uses a slightly louder electric guitar sound, etching texture into the song. Pretty mix of banjo and guitar in the instrumental section, but awfully dreary, weary and ancient sounding, with an affecting use of background vocal harmonizing. Song builds to a crackly, speaker-distorting crescendo before fading.
(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit… is a long narrative with a simple chugging acoustic strum about a preacher who sees the light one day – sees that his church is “a palace of sin” where he’d been blinded “by Christ’s own half-lies” – now he finds God in the bottle: “Well I sucked down a cupful and God shone within.” As for his congregation, “let them abstain.” All hail to the whiskey, as he finds that church songs “pale next to this fiery chorus / Composed from a living depth especially for us,” which provides him with a newfound independence. In the church, he says, “I saw a dependence, an inherent weakness / Within walls which hid sunlight and hindered all frankness.” So, a song about losing one’s religion and discovering a newfound faith in the tradition of an alcohol-induced honesty, yet which doesn’t have to entail the notion of ‘confession.’ Once again, Oldham, who would eventually become a singer noted for his blunt honesty, seems to be forming a manifesto here: “For if I drink my whiskey, and if I sing a song / I have no breast companion, a-trailing along.” This seems a recurrent theme of singer/songwriters who intend to go it alone. Both Bob Dylan and Kristian Matsson (aka The Tallest Man on Earth) sang of their guides and manifestos in their earliest work. And like Oldham, both are ‘voice-actors’ to some extent. He leaves us with this dictum: “God is one’s corpus, and Jesus one’s blood / The world is within you, without is of mud.” The tune here is vaguely memorable, but repetitive and the ending is rather abrupt.
There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You… has vocals shared between Oldham and Todd Brashear and uses a screechy tinny organ sound throughout to carry the tune, which rises and falls crazily about. Oldham gets right out of key here, quite brilliantly and badly at the same time. The lyric is obscure but seems to have a fishing theme running through it, with lines like, “Beneath a flow of water / You’ll find yourself angling,” “To spoil, you’ll leave the days catch / While you drift off to sleep,” “Through this task the bait’ll glean,” and “I’ve had vision on the skillet / To fish which is your art.” Again the theme of the title seems to be about developing independence, hence the need to know how to fish. It’s a more driven, textured, layered thing, which informs its soft-to-loud structural dynamic, building to moments of intensity between the singers and that high-pitched organ.
O Lord Are You In Need?… is a plodding ballad kind of song in which Oldham’s persona is waiting for some man to come and see him: “When he calls on me tonight / Will I rise and have to greet him?” However, he seems very nervous or pensive about this as he looks about trying to decide on whether to meet him on the cold porch or inside in the warmth. There’s really only one line which gives us some clue as to why this meeting is going to take place: “Can one man I admire / Ask kneeling for my kindness.” Is this man coming to receive forgiveness? It’s so oblique we can only but guess. The song is constructed out of a series of couplets each ending with the line, “Oh Lord are you in need?” which gives it its quiet, hymnal melody. Lovely spare use of lap steel behind clockwork strumming. There’s a Peel session version of this on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2.
Merida… is another oblique song, possibly about a mad old prostitute and a client who makes her feel needed: “His head buried within the breasts of a lunatic / Full, though aging mounds they were / He pretended to weep, but sighed in relief / Much to the motherly joy of her.” They have sex then he retires to his room: “He was not the last to quit her as he retired to his room / For she came calling, all a-shiver / Stood over him in the gloom / Her nakedness hovered and steamed in the cold / A threatening glow on her scarred corpus / How, he thought, has she gotten so old.” This is the second song here in which Oldham uses the word “corpus.” This is why it’s hard to know how seriously to take him. His voice is high and wired in this, while the instrumentation is an aggressively strummed acoustic guitar and a piercing electric note which rises in the chorus to add melody. It’s a slight but appealing tune with odd lyrics that sometimes Oldham has to rush through in order to fit the syllables into his meter.
King Me… I’ve read somewhere that “King me” in chess is a way of saying “Beat me if you can,” though in this song I suspect it has more base connotations, specially in context of the last verse: “Yes you have pulled my manhood into your corner / If I could get up enough strength, enough will / To pull to your side, I want you to reach into your reserves / Top me off, tide me over, make me a man / And king me, baby / Please king me, baby.” That line about reaching into your reserves is uttered like a preacher’s cry, while the line “make me a man” is issued like a command, albeit a comically droll one given Oldham’s precariously fragile voice: “I figure you’re just one big inherent mistake” he tells his ‘baby.’ The song is so slow, the melody so slight that a song like this tends to get washed over amongst the general doldrums of Side Two. Bass is more prominent here, and as always, the guitar rhythm often sounds like it’s being improvised on the spot. Not memorable.
I Had A Good Mother And Father… is a cover of a song written by a black “pioneering gospel singer” called Washington Philips, who recorded in the 1920s. Nice bouncy banjo, strum, pedal steel and Oldham “doo dooing” in falsetto. It’s about being raised a good Christian by his parents who are both now dead. This song changes everything about this record though. On the one hand, you’re constantly wondering just how serious Oldham is with this material, but suddenly you hear an authentic song like this, which fits so naturally in with the original material that you realize Oldham’s weird project is not necessarily the irony-laden nudge-nudge-wink fest that it first seems. The final verse exemplifies the point perfectly: “I know this whole round world / Does not love me no how / And it’s on account of sin / But I just thank God he’s able / For to give me many friends.” This is Oldham’s “Bob Dylan” of 1962, yet unlike Dylan Oldham doesn’t really get into the blues tradition so much as mine that bleak and wretched ancient folk-country sound. It’s simple, pretty and touching.
Riding… is sung as a series of questions and answers such as “Where are you going riding boy? / I’m gonna ride on down to see you,” and “Who you gonna ride with, boy? / I’m gonna bring my sister Lisa… / … Because I love my sister Lisa most of all.” However the questioner tells him that his love is “sinful.” Alas, he replies, “I’m long since dead and I live in Hell / She’s the only girl that I love well,” in a high intense voice, yet ends up pledging himself to God: “God is what I make of Him / All I have I give to him / All I own I give to him,” he sings. So, a weird song about incest, and one of the next catchiest here, although ‘catchy’ doesn’t seem like the right word given the dreary slow nature of the tune. There’s a slight ominous tone between the soft bass and the way Oldham’s slow wavery high vocal repeats the same words over and over, with backing vocals. One of the better songs here, which also appears elsewhere: an extended version on Lost Blues And Other Songs (1997) re-recorded for Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004) and re-recorded again with the Trembling Bells for The Marble Downs LP (2012).
O Paul… could be about (a) Paul Greenlaw, who plays banjo on this album, but more likely (b) Paul Oldham, Will’s brother. In this song ‘Paul’ is sick and trying to get to sleep on the sofa. The singer puts a blanket on him, but informs him that the family need to get some rest too, and that he’ll be all right for the night. Once again, it sounds like it’s set in the Civil War years, yet it could equally be contemporary. That’s the strange thing about these songs. They express sentiments that aren’t entirely outmoded. The beat is prominent here, a rat-a-tat-tat kind of thing, with soft warbly pedal steel. Very simple and repetitive, but also, intriguing and mysterious—once again, the devil is in the details. Oldham reaches a funny affecting little falsetto in this song: “My Paul / There’s something in your stomach turning sour / What happens in your head tonight’s not true.”
I didn’t really intend to analyze the lyrics in so much detail, but the songs are like little narratives, and the musicianship and instrumentation is all reasonably simple, quiet unassuming stuff such that you’re forced to listen to the words, though it does take concentration. My favourite songs here I think are “Long Before” and “(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit” both of which tell stories with memorable tunes. But overall, as I said earlier, I’ve listened to this album umpteen times and much of it just sort of passes me by if I don’t sit down and really listen to it. What I like about Oldham’s style though, is that these narrative lyrics, in true post-modern fashion, often seem anti-moral, or anti-message. An unusual album, though I find myself a touch ambivalent about its appeal. Oldham strips it right back for 94’s Days In The Wake.
Are you telling me that you actually saw Will Oldham & The Renderers live at Dunedin in 1997?! That show is one of the best things ever secretly recorded on tape and later slyly distributed. What was it like? Did you take pictures?
Recorded & distributed? I didn’t know that. I don’t remember the concert at all. I was way up the back of the pub. I was probably high & this was before the days of cellphones with cameras.