The French thinker Roland Barthes came up with various theories based on structuralism, one of which was the idea of the Text, versus the Work. The ‘Work’ is what we’re used to—a consumable artwork, one that maintains pre-existing bourgeois power structures, inflicts them on the reader or in the case of music, on the listener. Such texts are called “readerly” texts because they exist solely to be read, consumed, discarded. A ‘writerly’ text on the other hand, defers meaning indefinitely, thwarts all attempts to get a fix on it, to control it; it remains difficult and open. If you’re an Oldham fan, you’ll know where I’m going with this.
I thought of Barthes after reading the All Music Guide’s review of Joya. In the middle of his review, Steven Thomas Erlewine writes; “the songs teeter between apparent sincerity and inscrutable irony. The hushed dynamics of the music and his whispered vocals suggest that Oldham means what he’s saying, but his appropriation of American folk imagery and impenetrable wordplay suggest otherwise.” I wish he’d given some examples of this “American folk imagery,” but in trying to second guess Oldham’s intentions, Erlewine assumes that, like less vexing recording artists, Oldham is the sole arbiter of meaning, that he intends a fixed meaning if only we could decipher it. Erlewine’s frustrations sees him in honest stead though. He finishes his review with a comment that propels Barthes’s theory of the Text onto the scene: “It’s a promising, ultimately unfulfilling record that doesn’t quite prove whether Oldham is a songwriter of pretense or genuine talent.” Fair enough. However, there’s far too much emphasis on ‘Oldham’ here. Oldham matters not, Steven, the author is dead.
Having finished reading Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, it was interesting to hear about Oldham’s penchant for lyrical pilfering. Like that other great genius-who-steals, the magpie-esque Bob Dylan, we learn that many of his lyrics have their roots and sources in pre-existing texts. Oldham assembles his songs with lines stolen from poems, films, manifestos, others songs, lines written by friends, etc. Thus it can be said that the resulting “tissue of quotations” looks very much like one of Barthes’s “writerly” texts—one crafted by a “scriptor” and which requires creative participation on the part of the listener in order to take meaning from it. The scriptor has no past, says Barthes, but rather, is born with the text. Interpretive horizons are opened up considerably for the active reader/listener. By turning the reader into the writer (maker of meaning), writerly texts defy the commercialization and commodification of literature.
That last sentence is where I link back to Alan Licht’s book-length interview with Oldham, in which it becomes clear just how much Oldham eschews the record industry’s commercialization and commodification of his music. By messing with standard forms of distribution, formats, even artist name, he allows his art to screw with the system. And his lyrics on Joya, like those on all of his records to date, are yet again, obscure, mucked up, writerly. Oldham’s ‘death’ gives birth to Bumstead. Let the hermeneutics begin…
O Let It Be… has piano, bass, drums forming a solid rhythm in between the more fragile sounding verses, and lead guitar lines. The narrator begins by registering curiosity, “What’s on the other side of the big looking hill?” which is followed up with tension; “Gather your courage, gather your free will / Go over yonder and catch you a look / … at what made us tremble and shook.” But the narrator refuses to be drawn in, voice cracking: “I can do without it … let me be myself,” he pleads. While the sung-to “you” disappears over the hill to take a look, Oldham’s narrator, alternating voice between a carefree whimsy and a serious concern, becomes distracted, picks flowers, sniffs at the summer, and uses this brief time of being alone to rejoice in his friend’s absence; “I will slip off my old clothes and into a suit / Dance all around…” Finally, he will “exit your bestial gallery,” which suggests desire to be rid of this person; “I can always live without it / Let it be.” It’s a great opening number, with plenty of forward momentum, and nice tune. It appears in live form on Summer In The Southeast, 2005.
Antagonism… in which the narrator uses an incident to ask some honest questions of himself. The song makes use of a simple repeating minor chord guitar figure (lifted wholeheartedly from “Pretty Ballerina” by the Left Banke and slowed down) an immediate hook and groove that makes this song a standout. The vocal style is also repetitive, each line sung in a quiet, pensive voice, which taken in complicity with the lyrics, slips in a mysterious quality, a way of getting under your skin. The story goes thus: He’d visited an old stomping ground, a beach, alone, but saw there an old friend (“We’d been close, it had been a long time ago”) who does not see him. Where the narrator has “hardened” himself over the years however, this chap stayed “soft and never seemed to grow.” In consequence, he finds himself wavering (like a chord) between wanting to go talk to him, perhaps console him, and wanting to antagonise the guy, to disdain him for “not recogniz(ing) value” in his actions like the narrator has learned to do. This leads him to ask himself, “why not act harshly?” continuing, “Why keep awful thoughts and feelings inside of thee? / Why not mete them out ever so generously?” And doesn’t this kind of honest admission recognize a genuine aspect of humanity? Thus it’s a song of independence but also one of cruel-to-be-kindness, or the selfish gene in operation. While a synth tone hovers gently in the background, in private he asks of that guy, “Has it ever dawned upon you / To do things like I do / And sabotage your rightful due?” having earlier suggested that each person’s rightful due is one of god-given goodness. It seems like an awful admission that needles right into the heart of morality. And the way the music hardly changes, yet captures you in its odd little furrowing pattern gives the song a slightly unsettling quality.
New Gypsy… the vibe gets ever more dark and mysterious, somehow creepy, tense, as Oldham sings this in one of his ghostly sigh voices, that neo-falsetto etching its trouble onto your mind as if you’re the tape reel and he’s the needle. A slower beat, some buzzing keyboard tones, a low jangling guitar line. The weirdness, especially Oldham’s voicings, reminds me of “Madeleine Mary” from I See A Darkness. The narrator experiences feelings of disgruntlement, neglect, “unhappy and forlorn” with people, out, perhaps in a bar, and advises the listener to “never take sick advice / From the lips of sick friends” for you will enter a vicious circle of ill health. He would rather enjoy the light, “run with dogs and wave your arms / And don’t come home til night.” At home he would “break a button open” for lady to “see the light.” Similar to the previous song, the narrator disdains weakness, advising “never…slip into the trend again,” lest all your bones slip out. What remedy is available? Turn that sick advice to your own ends, he tell us. A gypsy should turn things to his advantage. If a place to stay is offered to him, he’ll take it without sentiment, and if eventually he finds he does need some love, fix ’em with an imperative verb: “Have the ladies gather round / And do me from above.” The new gypsy casts a great spell.
Under What Was Oppression… first addresses the listener directly with “you”, which later changes to “her” and “she” – this suggests the ‘you’ is female. It’s about the complexities in a faltering relationship illustrated by the confusing mind-game of a line like, “You do not have to be ignorant / For me to get on with you / Rather you do / If anything is to shine through.” He admits to uncertainty; “God has given me no gift / To speak honestly to myself / Or to decide strongly / In another’s company,” such that perhaps the problem lies with the narrator: “I am making my living / Breathing cursing / Misbehaving.” While the lyric scatters interpretive attempts to the four winds, the music too, avoids gelling into a pattern. The drum beat features prominently, while the strums decorate the rhythm with diffidence, or a special kind of indifference. He will just have to get on with his work being who he is, and suffer the consequences: “I do not know yet / If she chooses to ignore me.” It’s a hard one to sink.
The Gator… in which ‘gator’ might be urban slang for smoking pot and comes to symbolize the associated hallucinogenic state, something the speaker loves. Being ‘on the gator’ suggests a dream at first – “At night when I’m sleeping / I know I’m alone / And off on the gator / I allegedly roam,” but later refers more explicitly to marijuana: “I’m off on the gator / And boy am I stoned.” When someone’s off on the gator you “leave him alone” for you know by “heez eyes” when he “ain’t home.” The narrator recounts being ‘on the gator’ as a positive experience which widens his vision (“my eyes are much larger”) and his “dignity’s grown.” This is another slowie, the rhythm is of the rise-and-stop to a thud-brief-pause type, while Oldham’s vocal slides out of words into “doo doo”, again on that lovely but strange falsetto he has. This is short with an intriguing, but likable melody.
Open Your Heart… here Oldham lapses into phrases that sound like lyrical clichés, such as “open your heart,” “don’t fall apart,” and “it’s not that hard / To do it again / Just this last time,” although some of these were lifted from Madonna’s “Open Your Heart.” In Oldham’s song these are juxtaposed against non-standard love-song lines: “Let this snake in,” and “I know I lied / But I never said / That I wouldn’t try / To mess with your head.” But even that sounds a little hackneyed. The narrator seems to be advocating a freer relationship: “It’s not worth having / Who can’t be abiding.” This is similar in form to “Under What Was Oppression.” Oldham has said that the song-chords were dished out to the other musicians on the spot, which might account for songs like this, where it sounds un-fully formed, captured in mid-composition, which is a fine enough thing, but the lack of patterning or deep layering renders a lyrical/musical mismatch, where neither lock each other in to any recognizable melody. Another that sort of passes me by, even when I’m trying to pay attention to it.
Rider… has a rich acoustic melody, a jiggly electric lead, warm bumpy rhythm, and another one of those assured, lightly wiry, capricious Oldham vocals. Whenever you see the word ‘ride’ or its derivatives in an Oldham song you can usually assume sexual activity, this time under the influence of the gator, perhaps: “High high all night now …/ Lady’s got a box pressed into my face.” When The Wonder Show Of The World came out, most reviewers drew attention to the line from the song “That’s What Our Love Is,” which goes “the smell of her box on my moustache,” but how many of them made the connection back to this song? None that I recall, but for the 2011 version of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, this not-often expressed sentiment appears to have been old hat. The second verse goes psychedelic where he sings of stars, cloud, nebulae and constellations which form “erotic poises.” Alas, “between the ears a synapse is wrong.” A short distracted song, which also appears on the live album Funtown Comedown, 2009.
Be Still And Know God (Don’t Be Shy)… some of this stuff reminds me of Lou Reed. Musically this one is a lot more interesting, with winding-down guitar notes, a fast little fuzz-riff, other tinny sounds, and a really melodic but quirky, quaint vocal. It begins with a lyric of surprise, the way the subconscious occasionally forces unwanted or long-lost memories into the conscious mind. Instead of feeling embarrassed or hostile to these memories, the narrator rationalizes, repeating in the chorus, “Oh don’t be shy.” When confronted by others with these memories, he can “act like nothing’s been said,” by “a shift of my head.” In interview, despite professing atheism, Oldham often draws on religiously connotative language (especially ‘evil’) to discuss his opinions, so it’s interesting that the narrator of this song admits that he will sometimes “take God as a covering guard,” even though, “I do not believe in the grace of a governing God.” For him this seems to be about being a man, whereas asking for help from above “is a womanly cry.” God becomes a goat, bleating incessantly from above. Love the chorus here, “Oh don’t be shy,” sung four times. One of the best songs here.
Apocolypse No!… is about two male friends hanging out. Fictional anecdote is used to enlargen and caricaturize their relationship. First they share out some pills, with the narrator complaining, “he got the mother lode this time / Why, o why are best friends such finks?” Next, after “he pat me on the shoulder / And I playfully ruffled his hair,” the narrator attempts to drown his friend, before pulling him back and kissing him. They go “arm in arm to the fair,” as though it was the end of a fairytale. The songs sounds as if it’s being made up on the spot, just some haphazard strumming as if searching for the right chord, the right rhythm, a drumbeat, nope, thumb running over the strings, very quiet, low and subdued mood, a vocal that nearly slips out of tune. The narrative outlined above is backporch kind of stuff, a stoned over dude recalling some incident without too much clarity, as if he’s trying to remember the details in real-time recording. It plods a bit, and the only time it gets interesting is when “he struggled for air,” heightens the dramatic tension. Finishes on the word “fair.” There’s an even less structured version of this song on Guarapero: Lost Blues 2.
I Am Still What I Meant To Be… is one of the more opaque numbers here, opening on its chorus (a structure we begin to see often in the early Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy years). By repeating these lines between every verse, the effect is reinforced: “I am still what I meant to be,” he tells us, presumably a good thing, but then, “And I’m losing my mind,” which is paradoxical. Does he mean to be someone who’s losing his mind then? And if he’s losing his mind, how can he “still” be the same thing, when “losing my mind” signals change? “But our burdens must lessen / Though our enemies thrive,” he continues in typical non-sequitur fashion. Does this couplet indicate some kind of stoicism? Resignation? Giving in, or turning the other cheek while maintaining your pride or dignity? The verses are a minefield of meaning, a multi-interpretative dimension where stock women parts meet bad vibes, basements and attics vie with a lover’s vows to get well, and where heading to market means starting to cry. It’s life, and life only. If he’s losing his mind, this is represented by the distance between sense-lines, yet the chorus is lovely, those chugging jiggly detailed electric guitar lines sort of echoing the voice in that the former follows the latter. The whole album has this very distinct aesthetic—an affected sort of whimsy and indifference in Oldham’s voice, yet so not indifferent. I like this number.
Bolden Boke Boy… is another that begins on its chorus, a really melodic one this time, with a more upbeat vibe, and more of that jiggly electric lead. In the first line, Oldham sings of “this task,” which if he moves quickly and surely through, he’ll “earn some rest,” for doing his best. Considered in light of Joya, which Oldham says took two days to record and one day to mix, we might think of his task as the work of a musician. The task though, may be to work through the difficulties that make up everyday relationships, such as good friends who have to part ways in order to do their thing. There was a time when the narrator and his mate got together to “see how easy things could be made / And still go down unanxiously.” A memory of how his friend was “once chased down the street by blacks / Screaming how cool it is / To be black,” before ducking away. Shift to a higher gear and we learn the narrator has had to harden himself, become “rough” in order not to become completely inhuman. It’s a shifting complex emotional journey, as the narrator’s mind shifts from thought to thought, barely related, but in fact, just like the unconscious mind at work, many of these songs seem to shift here and there while always remaining in the shade. A favourite.
Idea And Deed… in which the narrator questions the nature of the winter’s hardships, the worth of spring’s rebirth to those who’ve fallen and lost their freedom. He raises a toast “to the love of our people succeed,” to friends and the future, that they may “flourish in idea and deed.” It sounds like 1776. The narrator offers a moral lesson for this future, where the strong are distinguished by their costume, where wealth is devalued and “to liberty honesties lean,” suggesting the world might be rearranged according to merit (how very Miltonian). In the final verse, we learn that we are to be our own judge and jury. Unless we keep a check on ourselves “with an eye that is watchful and kindly and strong,” we can hardly hope to succeed. A slow beat, more of that arbitrary-seeming guitar strum, the sound of distraction again, yet sound-wise, a part of the whole. Some neat fiddling around on the notes up the top end of the fretboard. By the end of the song though, you start to feel yourself drooping like an unwatered plant.
So this commentary then—heavy on its opening philosophy for an album whose songs often sound like they might just as easily have never existed. Is that part of the idea? Had Oldham smoked too much gator? Was his sense of purpose wavering? But there’s an absolute beauty in his voice on this album which keeps me coming back for me (that was a typo – was supposed to be ‘more’ but I like the accident). And there’s certainly a consistency of mood and texture across Joya which I admire, and enough really great tracks which renders those few more casual numbers as some kind of thickening ingredient. I think you can start to hear elements of the I See A Darkness Oldham in here, ideas that when worked more robustly and perhaps layered more deeply could result in some amazing arrangements. Yet, the unworked aspect of Joya is also part of its charm. Where does that leave me? De-hermeneuticized.