Arise Therefore takes us along another branch of the Oldham sound. We’re back to the spareness of Days In The Wake yet with quite a different feel to that guitar and vocals solo effort. The main thing is the drum machine which adds a droning rhythmic texture to most tracks, albeit the pace is glacial-slow, and the moods just as downcast and forlorn as ever. In fact, Oldham comes closest to sounding like Bill Callahan’s Smog-era material here in terms of style, although where Callahan’s baritone reaches out and demands you hear his lyrics, Oldham’s reedy whinny is as faint, tentative and unassuming as ever. Unassuming in that once again he’s still on that trajectory where he sounds as if the thought that anyone might actually buy and listen to his records is the furthest thing from his mind. The concept-persona of “Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy” remains as yet undreamed of. In fact, between Arise Therefore—the last of the ‘Palace’ monikered albums—and I See A Darkness he would revert to “Will Oldham” for a couple of years.
Arise Therefore is not an easy album to get into, and shouldn’t be the point of entry into Oldham’s back catalogue. The tunes are textural, the melodies subtle as ever, but there’s a saminess across these ten tracks that makes it hard to sustain a concentrated listen over the whole album. Yet, that’s the only way to really enjoy it too—by sitting down and really listening to it.
Stablemate… revisits the “waiting to leave” theme with the horse metaphor we’ve heard so much of on preceding albums. “How could anyone think anything’s permanent?” asks the narrator in a soft, floating voice. The melancholy agony of waiting is achieved musically through the slow ominous pulse of a programmed beat, one note piano and low bass throb that never changes once through the short song—it’s a track like this that seems to have much in common with mid-period Smog: “I haven’t any reason left in my head to not go away,” complains the poet-singer. And dig the double negative in these lines: “Haven’t you heard I’ve a new invitation / To give to a woman who sits and who works / Whose father does not ever not let her have / Something she wants.” Oldham gives a stoic, resigned touch to his vocal on many of these tracks, the sort of voice that suggests he knows we’ve heard it all before, but this is all he has to offer. From what I can gather, he’s about to leave one stablemate, who plays mind games, for another who puts real effort into loving. This song has an otherworldly quality about it—quite beautiful and strange.
A Sucker’s Evening… has a tiny tick-tock woodblock beat and a faint repeating guitar figure that buzzes and oscillates in and out, over and over, and which pre-empts the sound of later tracks on the Superwolf album. This renders the vocal very much up front, and what a lyric. Here Oldham plays the part of a woman’s new lover singing about her ex and how to defeat his anger, although Oldham plays the coward here: “I will not pick a fight with you / I’d be scared I’d foul it up,” but worries about getting busted up, and so he tells the woman, “I’ll hold his arms, you fuck him / Fuck him with something / The fuck – he deserves it.” While that’s happening, Oldham’s persona offers to go find a curse “to give him a goat head,” so that he can “make him watch me take his place” while “lady and I” spend themselves dry. Nasty stuff. The way he sings it is sort of tragicomic—it’s like “wtf?” on the one hand, and “haha,” on the other. The music, which once again, never changes, is sparse and simple-effective—a tune that only engages after a few listens. There’s a live version of this on Summer In The Southeast (2005).
Arise Therefore… is lyrically obtuse to the third degree. It’s a bruised kind of thing, with lines about friends who “have been struck dumb,” not being able to blame others, people whose fall has been delayed owing to behind the scenes maneuvering, severing the weighted limbs of people who would support you through having made mistakes on your behalf…and…yeah. A tough one to unpick with any specificity, but something about the human condition being one which is forever fraught with moral ineptitude and a righteousness that is always decaying. Musically however, this ups the ante with a louder, really nice guitar part, a catchy little repeating riff threaded through a thumping syncopated drum machine beat, augmented with heavy piano chords every four bars or so. Despite the repetition I really like it. When the faintly piercing organ starts up, the song is complete. Again, for fans of Smog’s Red Apple Falls album, this is right up there with Bill Callahan’s best work. Oldham’s voice hits its usual dry waver whenever the song requires an oomph of feeling, though it’s not always easy to catch the words. A favourite so far, with a live version appearing on Is It The Sea? (2008).
You Have Cum In Your Hair And Your Dick Is Hanging Out… the title seems like a bad joke, bearing relation to the lyric which is suggestive of an ending relationship in that it paints a dire picture of some loser: “She won’t come / I’ll be gone,” and the even more suggestive line, “Play with it while you have hands.” The music is barely there, a glacial pace, a beat every four seconds, a bass note between the beats, some scratches on guitar strings, the bleakest of melodies. It’s a little too sparse for my liking—pretty bleak stuff, joyless and almost bored, it’s amazing he found the energy to actually record the song. There’s a tiny touch of piano too. Not an easy one to get into at first, but again, quietly affecting with close listening. I’ve already discussed a demo version of this on the free 7″ released with the Viva Last Blues album, where the title is explained. There’s a different version on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 (2000).
Kid Of Harith… opens with a faster repetitive and very processed beat that sounds similar to Pornography-era Cure drumming. This is an odd song though – the beat seems at odds with the music and singing, and here, Oldham’s lines are a little too prosaic such that they sound like someone singing a passage from a textbook: “For how can it be, to be so much with you / When there are those that totally laugh at me / I pray so often that some fluid will pass through / While I slowly strengthen my vocabulary.” The vocal is watery and soft/loud and washed out, like a bad poet at the end of an open mic night of very bad poetry. It’s a difficult ‘tune’ at first but eventually grows on you. I get the feeling that Oldham is singing a song of loyalty to his muse here: “O will I be faithful to you / And never to separate, now you have found me.” For his chosen career path, “the real road’s laid out in a line,” such that performing “is not an urge, it is more like a duty.” He acknowledges too, that “there are those that totally laugh at me,” which is surely a pretty honest line. Oldham laughs longest though.
The Sun Highlights The Lack In Each… has a sunbaked desert feel with a slow, horse-plodding beat, and cactus-juice wah-wah guitar. The first verse sums up Oldham’s whole Palace persona quite brilliantly: “Condition is uncertain and likely to go / I sit like I did, like I may always / Under capsized boats, discouraged / To know how sunk can be days / Struck under, blown out, to cause busts.” That phrase ‘condition is uncertain’ suggests, somewhat onomatopoeically, his vocal range and style. When he talks about how sunk can be “days” it suggests a long-lasting depression, which ultimately causes “busts.” When he gets to the chorus, his voice rises to a dramatic crescendo of his classic warble: “O my / Our friends all within reach / And the sun highlights the lack in each,” as if to suggest that Oldham’s lack is an inability to render a sustained note in key. Then we get the whoring line: “With enough money a woman is mine / And I hers, to challenge and throw her over / Over the rail, over a bedpost, out in line.” A piano chord here, a strum there, that watery wah-wah sound, all speaks sparseness, ennui, frustration. There’s a one-eyed cowboy feel to this song, weirdness in the desert. It’s kind of druggy, and memorable for its gargled out chorus line. In this song, someone mocks the singer, calling him “a small soul … but burning brightly / And guttering on my things like a wave.” No idea quite what that means but it sounds pretty cool. There’s an acoustic version of this song on the B-side of the “Strange Form Of Life” 12″ single recorded under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker and released in 2007.
No Gold Digger… seems to use the exact same music as “Arise Therefore” – the same beat, one note piano again, and same jiggly riff, almost the same melody. It’s a funny little song, funny in the sense of odd, about a girl, or prostitute, who steals a little bit of money from the protagonist when they’re in bed together: “A little cash was took off me / While I lay there comfortably / I wouldn’t move to stop her theft / Her deft hand moved across my chest.” Presumably they’ve just had sex because he describes her as “the little dead girl, the little fish.” Hey, at least she’s no gold digger though, which may be an ironic reference to the fact she chose him to steal from rather than a rich man. I like this song a lot though. “No gold digger tonight with me,” sings Oldham, raising his voice a notch, “She gripped me goldly.” Again, resignation seems to inform the music. In 2012, Oldham recorded a new, full band version of this song and released it on the Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy 10″ EP.
Disorder… is another break-up song, where the singer mentions a girl, whose name might be Lisa or Laura, though he seems to have forgotten already, an affectation which suggests bitterness. He sings about weaknesses, hers and his own, and through the details he offers us, seems to suffer a touch of guilt, though he defies the emotion because she cheated on him too. Perhaps he doesn’t like her seeing “in me a promise of what I could give / And I to see in her a reason to live / Which was past just a symbol of woman and luck / That I would never be lacking for something to fuck / And one to fuck over when things would decide / That it was once again time to go for a ride.” The melody is more upfront in this song, with a sing-song vocal style, perhaps owing to the AABB rhyme scheme of the stanzas. Musically we have occasional piano, a lightly chiming guitar figure wheeling through the song, and a much more powerful vocal performance this time round, with only a very light hi-hat ticking away behind the music. The learned wisdom at the end of the song: “We felt we must seize the weather, and never the whim / To be led by the other and not the within.” A hard-earned sentiment.
A Group Of Women… has a hard tap-tap beat with a fairly wishy-washy vocal and guitar part. In this song, the singer observes a group of women as they wash. He celebrates his freedom in this song, and seems to be suggesting vaguely that at least momentarily he is free of desire: “As I sit and watch them wash / I have no point to get across.” This is the least tuneful song here, and feels kind of aimless. It’s all over in two minutes.
Give Me Children… continues the whimsical almost random feel of these songs. Here we get more of the pain—a stranger who hits, a wind that bites, a partner who cries constantly and the admission of foolishness. It’s the partner who seems to be suffering the most here. A few sparse piano notes, a simple repeating hi-hat, and a guitar part that chimes in every now and then with the vocal. Another shortish song, that drifts by without really going anywhere interesting.
The Weaker Soldier… is more upbeat, another one of Oldham’s stronger vocals. The lyrics again are oblique-bleak. This song actually has a chorus proper with someone singing a backing vocal: “I have not been feeling the same / I am not fit to carry your name / I am not fit and I am not willing / To go on.” Again, we get piano, a similar programmed beat to what’s gone before, and a meandering chiming guitar strum, although the pieces gel together quite well to form one of the strongest songs of the whole set. Love the opening lines here: “I once was a weaker soldier hanging in the war / But I left, like an ape, folded neatly in four.” I get the feeling this ‘war’ is of the ‘love is a battlefield’ kind, ergo lines like, “I had revealed myself by crying and shouting,” and “I turned away from that and into this / Black kettle of oneness.” Ultimately the Oldham-persona is unwilling to get permanently involved with a girl, one who he would “go upstairs” with but would rather “leave her up there.” As he says in the chorus, he’s not willing to carry her name, nor fit and willing to go on. A good song to end on.
Arise Therefore is the perfect example of an Oldham record that takes forever to get anywhere with, and which only makes sense listening to it in the moment. In fact, the numerous times I spun this record without paying attention, it continued to just pass me by. Once I sat down and started listening to the lyrics and music closely, the whole thing began to emerge from its murky cocoon and win my love. The theme of the record is pretty much summed up in that very first line about rejecting permanence. Things change constantly, Oldham seems to be saying, like these songs which are like eleven different paintings of the same model-sitter. The only time I tended to lose him was in “A Group Of Women” and “Give Me Children” where the songs failed to take hold because of their slightly too-generic unfocused quality. This is the last of the Palace-era recordings. The next official release would gather together a number of tracks released on 7” only, plus other odds and ends — Lost Blues and Other Songs.