I would call Viva Last Blues the first ‘essential’ Will Oldham album. Even though Mojo includes There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You in their tome The Mojo Collection – The Ultimate Music Companion, and even though revisionists the world wide web over have rightly been singing the praises of that debut album for a few years now, I don’t think it’s up to the quality of Viva Last Blues. And what makes me so sure, and my opinion any more solid? Nothing. Nothing at all, except that when I prepare an album for review, I play it a lot, and then some, over years, or months or weeks, depending, and I figure out what catches subtly, what catches garishly, what doesn’t catch but works in the moment, and what neither catches nor works in the moment, and from the balance of those four, I make a judgment call. Under these conditions, Viva Last Blues has proven to be timeless, a whole album of the first category, “what catches subtly,” which sums up the greater part of Oldham’s catalogue.
Viva Last Blues however, is where Oldham forces me to search for alternative ways of evaluating the lyrical content of his work beyond either literal or figurative interpretation. The former fails, while the latter is impossible under the conditions of real-time reviewing, or would require real scholarly effort. But I’ve come up with several possible methodologies for making sense of these songs. (1) Assume that Will Oldham’s self-created world of meaning is, in the manner of Nick Drake, an inter-referenced set of symbols, all linked up and networked within a very particular closed system of meaning-making (the reoccurrence of concepts such as “waiting” and “riding” among other metaphors for sex, say, naked figures, or the favoured motifs of horses, bleeding cattle, and other beasts of burden) then spend an academic year unpicking the symbolism. (2) Gather meaning from the song title, any repeated lines, major emotive words and abstract nouns, but ignore the curveballs that fill up the verses, then consider the emotive tonality with which Oldham sings/voices his lines. (3) Assume these are random nonsense lyrics, lyrical filler for a vocal melody but which Oldham never bothered to rewrite at a later date, and thus evaluate the voice entirely as it were merely a melody-making instrument. (4) Imagine that the songs began life as richly detailed, coherent narratives from which Oldham, like a machete-wielding Gordon Lish on downers, has hacked out 90% of the original content, leaving us with lyrical confetti to be painfully pieced together like archaeologists reconstructing the Dead Sea Scrolls.
I haphazardly rely on all four and assume the whole album sublimates carnality for the act of making music under the rubric of what I’m calling “minimalist country-jazz.”
More Brother Rides… opens the album with a lazy swing, chewing grass, playing guitar on a hammock. Piano, tiny wah-wah squelches and a full band sound here. It’s sung in the first person plural while Oldham delineates ‘us’ from ‘them’ as he brings up a collection of fractured memories – “a halting way of talking” – caught in a series of disparate images. The memory of the past – “such younger folk as we” – is triggered by mention of the stars. But memories are blurred, not fully retrievable – “in the half-light.” From this I gather these lyrics read as a kind of personal code that only someone who’s shared these memories with Oldham, a brother say, could comprehend, especially when he sings “We are around near the railroad track / Checking out the thundering / Names you call could have been ours / To call and live among them.” Decay and ruin prevail: “We’re busted up, so ragged down / And kissing and subsisting / Our eyes glint wild and roll around / And the dog, he whines insisting.” Oldham pushes his luck a little far though when he rhymes “unrecognizable” with “rebaptizable” – the lyric falls apart at this point and nearly threatens to undermine the whole song which is verse-linked so tenuously already. If it wasn’t for the fact that the singing, musicianship and melody somehow support the slipshod rhyming so well, I’d call this song a fail–it’s anything but. The singing gets beautifully worked up over certain lines in this song, as the tune and instrumentation builds—hey we even get an organ line at one point. Oldham doesn’t just do the whole warble thing with his voice, but uses it to his advantage on lines where it makes most sense such as the one about “a halting way of talking.” Great opener. The song was re-recorded for Sings Greatest Palace Music (2005).
Viva Ultra… is slow, pensive, with tiny snippets of guitar, and reminds me of the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds in terms of its low melancholic unassuming sound. Yet again, Oldham separates “we” from “you” when he asks here, “Are you jealous … / Are you wary? / Are you mammals? / Do you eat and drink the same as we do?” But “it’s okay not to say.” What amazes me about this song is the way in which Oldham manages to sing his words as though it’s a perfectly natural way of communicating—there’s no awkward fitting lines to the melody, everything seems to go together hand in glove, and Oldham never once sounds like he’s straining with the words or lines, but tosses them out with casual abandon, as if you’re completely on his wavelength. There’s conflict in this song—Oldham sings about some female, his “lifeblood” but about whom he questions himself, “Do I hate her?” and later, “when I wake up / I do not ask her.” Things remain vague though, the empty pronoun “it” is used without grammatical antecedent, “and so it’s this way / That we start our day today.” What is it? What is this way? Why is he conflicted towards her? It’s all very minimalist, yet between the brief organ fills and minimal guitar parts we get just enough pieces to fill in a pretty cool melody, which intensifies for very brief moments. This is also included on Sings Greatest Palace Music (2004).
The Brute Choir… has a warm melody, a slightly faster pace than “Viva Ultra” and another subtle tune full of the sound of resignation. I love this song, and the lyrics here seem pretty funny, Oldham singing about a herd of cattle mooing, “the brute choir” who make him “want to holler with them / All the way down” to what I presume is the abattoir. It’s a haunting song, because the narrator who wishes to “go lay in the snow … cannot rest with so many singing so many songs.” And what a way of singing they have, he tells us, they who have nothing to say when they’re speaking. “Their voices are bringing trees to their knees,” and that word “their” wobbles in about three different registers. The most beautiful moment of the song comes at the end in the midst of a bar of piano: “They’re quiet, the choir, their voices go higher / the choir, the choir, their voices go higher,” he sings, as his own voice slowly dips in exasperatingly glorious contrast. This too was re-recorded for Sings Greatest Palace Music.
The Mountain Low… contains one of Oldham’s most oft-quoted lines: “If I could fuck a mountain / Lord, I would fuck a mountain” which sounds nonsensical at first, but soon turns into a kind of surrealism when the clincher comes: “And I’d do it with a woman in the valley.” It seems he’s in love with her, or at least in lust with her, and he sees himself as the mountain towering over her valley, a place where “she comes every morning.” Unfortunately there’s another bloke on the scene, a friend, whose presence or absence is the key to whether he can move in. None of this works on a literal level of course—it takes some reading between the lines to get to this point, and yet, the divergent ideas and images all crevice into this valley-as-vulva metaphor and a woman who seems to be “every night there for me / With a different face and legs that will not quit.” The music here is similar to the last couple of songs. It’s actually quite jazzy sounding—the guitar parts, whereas the main theme again has a warm feel with a syncopated beat, which gives it a more upbeat feel. The tune as always is a hard thing to catch at first, but it’s really quite lovely. A country-blues, with those tiny electric notes sparsely populating the acoustic strum. This song was released as a 7″ single.
Tonight’s Decision (And Hereafter)… is slower, a darker mood, with light acoustic guitar, warm bass, and a quiet yearning vocal. Yet again, we get the evil “them” who are the enemy, which is why Oldham advises you to “never forsake your brother.” This might even be the first time pre-I See A Darkness where Oldham explicitly sings about death, personifies it even, and when I say “explicitly” I also mean “expletively”—“I have heard death cry / I have heard him falter … / When he comes for me I will fuck him, oh.” And this is perhaps where the idea of “honesty” comes into play, because there’s not too many people willing to sing personal-sounding lines about wasting death in order to decide for yourself who lives and dies: “For with me, I’d have all of everyone burn / And the rest suffer death in its own black blur.” There’s considerable loneliness and pain in this song though—the real clincher comes in the last line of the chorus: “And where are my friends? / And where is my family? / They’ve all gone away / Though it’s I who have left them.” By song’s end, this sentiment ends up as “And where are the days? / I used to be friendly.” Once again, there’s seems to be a slight country-jazz feel to the song as well as a matter-of-fact resignation in Oldham’s hurt bird-dog-like voice. Fragile, a little unnerving, yet it shines in its downcast brilliance—which is a deliberate oxymoron, because at the end of the day, oxymorons and mixed metaphors seem to be the most apt ways to write about Oldham’s music.
Work Hard/Play Hard… catches your attention at the off with its grungy lead line, the sheer volume and the heightened sense of melodicism not immediately evident on most of the other tracks here. This is an odd lyrical number with a chorus about working hard and playing hard. The music sounds like a regular rock band; they bring the noise while Oldham brings the intensity in what sounds like the ‘hardest’ voice he can muster. Great tune, great build in the chorus of “Don’t you know that I work hard? / Don’t you know that I play hard? / Don’t you know it’s a hard way,” which gets beautifully released into the following line, “Don’t you know that I see aah she’d strip for me?” And so again, sex is part of this playing hard: “Me ‘n’ she… we do it the same / In the name of glory, filth and fame / Things are going okay / Find a little puppy love makes a day / Once in the morning and once at night, ah.” Has to be the poppiest thing Oldham’s recorded to date. Magnificent.
New Partner… channels Willie Nelson into its one-line-repeated chorus: “And you are always on my mind,” Oldham sings of his old partner, but now, “I’ve got a new partner riding with me.” Perhaps he’s suffering guilt for breaking up with her, although there’s a suggestion that he’s murdered her: “There is some awful action that just breathes from my hand,” leads to, “Now you’ll haunt me, you’ll haunt me / Till I’ve paid for what I’ve done / It’s a payment which precludes the having of fun.” And though I suspect these next lines are quite nonsensical, I like the way they breathe an attempt at profundity: “We all know what we know, it’s a hard swath to mow / When you think like a hermit you forget what you know.” There’s plenty of lap steel guitar here, some other waspish guitar sounds, a slow ponderous beat and one of Oldham’s softest voices. You can sense now, with hindsight that is, how he’s developing more and more confidence with his voice. The change with his first Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album wasn’t sudden but a gradual merging across the course of his five or six Palace/Will Oldham albums. This has another great tune, a kind of morning song, curtains still drawn in the bedroom. It has a mouldy humid smell hanging in the murk of the music. Great use of a thin organ line during the final chorus which takes the song out. A re-recorded version of “New Partner” appears on Sings Greatest Palace Music, a live version on Is It The Sea? (2008) and a new acoustic version recorded for the “Strange Form Of Life” 12″ single released in 2007.
Cat’s Blues… the last few lines of this song amuse me because I can’t help interpreting tt as meta-text for the album. Firstly, the Oldham-persona welcomes us in: “Come into my house” he says, to “loot the pantries” and “muss the sheets” and asks us if we’ve “found it useful thinking here?” But it doesn’t matter because our host “will be ten miles on back.” ie. We’ve raced far ahead of him. How did that happen? The answer was there in the first line, “I’m gonna turn my back for awhile.” In the middle of all of that is a terrible place where Oldham’s persona will “fuck girls if there’s violence to come,” with “crying” and where “love is forbidden outwardly.” Meanwhile the “boys…suffer while they waste and hurt.” What does it all mean though? Is he singing the song from the point of view of a cat as per the cover art? That could explain the loveless nature of this lonely narrator. Musically we get a guitar and bass groove, with lightly syncopated guitar notes, other atmospheric uses of sustained guitar notes and though I can hardly make sense of those words, Oldham’s voice here is brilliant again, building to moments of intensity that suggest that these words hold great meaning for him. It’s sounds so old too, like ancient-old. The highlight of the song comes with each climax that drops away into the hooky groove, especially in the lines, “How many children are there like this? / Yeah, and how many will I serve? / O if I could have a clue what justice is / It would be more than I deserve, oh.” Each time it builds to this climax and the groove locks back in and suddenly it’s your new favourite song on the album. Fantastic.
We All, Us Three, Will Ride… has a familiar kind of melody and possibly carries more sense in the title than any of the lyrics. This is where I’d like to say that you need to hear these lyrics sung to make any real sense out of them, and it’s not a literal understanding but rather one suggested far more by the tone of voice than any of the words. Here’s Oldham singing all forlorn, all 70s wallpaper, just voice and acoustic guitar, a little boy in the bathroom putting a bandage on his stubbed toe. When he sings, “he will come and make me have a baby,” you realize it’s yet another persona, and the view changes to some lonely country girl waiting for her love to come. I love the juxtaposition of these final images: “A lover’s laugh, a bleeding calf / A dog out in the harbour.” What does it mean? It’s the sound of abandonment. Tragedy. A new version of this song was released on 7″ single in 2002. A live version appears on Funtown Comedown (2009).
Old Jerusalem… look here at the final song’s last two lines: “When … I emote / It is the only time to catch it so / So we may as well rest, and let it go.” That argues a strong case against interpretation. Oldham doesn’t sing words, he “emotes” which is always related to sex: “Then we mingle our limbs, I hear all calling / When we swim and we buckle, I emote.” But it’s another terribly sad song, full of fear, with images of shooting, screaming, nightmares. The mood is summed up in the first line: “Trouble has caused me so much grief,” and again, someone much like the woman in the previous song, is “waiting” for others. It’s another very short simple acoustic guitar song with just Oldham on vocals, until the last line when someone (who might be Paul Oldham) joins him on the line, “We’re gonna be rejoined” so that they can find happiness once again. “Let us wallow, let us play, this is our god’s day.” A slight tune here, as with the previous song, but a nice calm way to end this strange album.
Phew. These Palace albums are getting increasingly difficult to write about sensibly without churning out university length essays for every song. Sense must be left at the door and one must give oneself completely over to the highly nuanced delicate set of emotions that pervade these tunes and Oldham’s singing. What’s so great about Viva Last Blues is that it’s ultimately unsatisfying, which makes you want to hear it again and again, and every time you do, it seems to get better, but ends yet again, on that feeling of dissatisfaction, a sort of vicious cycle of wanting more and not quite getting it. This makes me think that the artist himself has crafted songs bigger than himself, put them out there and affected the listener in ways that come so much more from the heart than the head. Genius resides within, but a very uncalculated kind of genius. Reading back my opening paragraphs about this album, I feel perhaps that I have succeeded to capture something of the essence of these songs ironically through my complete failure to say anything meaningful about them. Let’s see if I fare any better with the Viva follow-up, Arise Therefore.
Free 7″ Single
It’s not ‘free’ is it? No, its cost is factored into the price of the LP. It’s not really a ‘single’ either. ‘Single’ connotes a standalone song released for radio or whatever. But yes, it is a 7″. These two tracks are demos, or sound more like Days In The Wake material, which was mostly just Will and his acoustic guitar. The first track was used on 1996’s Songs Put Together For ‘The Broken Giant’ CD (which was then reissued in 1998 as Black/Rich Music) while the second track here would end up on Arise Therefore. Neither of them really have titles-proper. The quality of recording is decidedly lo-fi, barely listenable. It reminds me a little of Lou Barlow’s home-recorded stuff, and doesn’t much sound like the Viva Last Blues material.
Black/Rich Tune… I’m not sure what “Black” is but “Rich” refers to Bryan Rich who has written songs for Oldham and played on some of his albums. The words are practically indecipherable—it starts with something like “You won’t confess what we’ve done,” but thereafter, the singing is so poorly recorded and enunciated, all you hear is a couple of voices singing out of sync with each other. At the end someone says, “We should try it a couple more times over.” The tune here is pretty, soft, an apologetic regretful tone in the voices. There’s a stronger strum in the middle, an impassioned rise in vocal at the end, something that sounds like, “What would you see, to keep your eyes moanful?” But that’s a wild guess. I can’t quite tell but there might be two guitars here. This song would appear in full form on the soundtrack Black/Rich Music (1998).
You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out… is the punchline of a joke about a song-title that has no melody. [Pianist in a bar decides to take a break, goes out to masturbate. Bar owner catches him, tells him to get back to the piano. Punter comes up and says “Do you know you have cum in your hair and your dick is hanging out?” Pianist replies, “No, but if you hum a few bars, I’ll try to pick up the melody.” Hur hur] Oldham chose to use the line because he’d written a melody that had no title. The later version would add a second verse. It could be a song about disappointment, a theme I get from the chorus: “She won’t come / I’ll be gone.” The tune is again, subtle, melancholy, quite pretty actually, while one of his cohorts provides faint backing vocals. It’s very lo-fi, lasts all of about two minutes. This song appears in two more places: a studio version on Arise Therefore and another version with the title “Boy Have You Cum” on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2.