Palace Songs, O How I Enjoy The Light b/w Marriage 7″, 1994

The first thing you notice about this single is the warmer sound, richer fidelity and sheer complexity of the musicianship, something you don’t hear too often on the early Palace material. The next thing you notice is that the song has already ended —they’re both short, like, under three minutes short. While the instrumentation sounds clearer, the lyrics continue in the classic Oldham vein—minimalist, bleak and quirky, spartan affairs. The lyrical content is confetti-esque, not quite insensibly so, but certainly erratic, asymptotically approaching a solid theme, but just when you think you might have it figured out, it vanishes, and you’re left clutching at straws. The music does that too. I’ve heard these songs a dozen or so times now, yet they refuse to stick in my mind. The B-side even has a chorus, but it too unravels before you’ve caught it. What is the form of a good song? Maybe they’re just not very good Palace songs. No, they’re brilliant Palace songs. Usually, if I can replay a song back to myself in my head when the record’s been put away—that’s when I know I like a song. But these two songs are like little sparkling gems, colourful and mysterious, with a sweet and furtive aura.

O How I Enjoy The Light… the quickly flitting guitar parts at the start are gorgeous, everything sounds deliriously resonant, fertile mixture of flanged guitar, fingerpicking and electric lead intertwining with the voice. It’s as if the music is so beautifully recorded, a strong melody could have only spoiled the effect. One can’t help wondering to what extent mention of a ‘palace’ in an Oldham song signals self-reflexivity. Generally his lyrics are becoming more stream-of-consciousness, more about the sound of words as much as their sense, more automatist perhaps, Dadaist, call it what you will. If we consider the song title, with the usual positive connotations of ‘light’ then you might reasonably expect to find something optimistic here, and this does register faintly as a love song. The kind of light the singer “loves” is that “of the first morning forever” which one can “call upon” when “the day has cooled” and death approaches. But oh, he sometimes despises it too, though whether ‘it’ refers to love or light or something else, remains unstated. So far so good. But what about these “palace walls … strewn with tapestries”? The window panes “are splintered and shattered / With a crumbled dog on every landing,” where “every stranger cowers,” and “the dress is torn.” Say what? And there’s some neat diction in here too, such as “covey” meaning a small group of people, birds or actors, (the Palace band?), as well as a polar bear breaching pups, her loins yielding a yelp, a beating purr. Such soft poetic sentiments. As for wealth and wisdom? They’re nothing in the face of love, merely something you “tag on like an afterbirth.” In any case he will love “you” forever, except that he may not; “the difference exists in a fiction.” Got all that? Exactly. It’s a collection of roughly juxtaposed images associated with … um … life, as its lived, whether abstract or concrete. But this is a song and if there’s a meaning to all this, it’s fused into the melody and rhythm, those non-verbal means of communication that on a later 7” single, (“One With The Birds”) Oldham would sing about more directly. That final dilating strum sounds like magic.

Marriage… “Just coming in to where I store my hair,” Oldham sings, quite beautifully over a sumptuous acoustic guitar, and a sweet organ tone with the crisp attack and thump of the drums holding it in place. With a chorus like “So we die / Who has the blues / Not I,” you know you’re buried in a coffin with a stoic who uses songwriting as his outlet. In the first verse he sings of “fusing” with another. But “no children…sighed” even though “listening we hear them.” If this is related to marriage, it’s very tangential. Perhaps marriage figures in these lines – “You and me sister / Going to hang on to a bigger day / Closer to joining / Closer to death.” On Arise, Therefore Oldham sang of his dislike for permanence, so we might interpret these lines with the aversion to marriage they invoke. The interlude swings, almost an organ solo, in fact more melodic that I’d given it credit for. The final verse brings an image of the narrator drying up, as he commands someone to go fetch water. “If you don’t come back soon / I’ll pass out right here and die,” he tells her. This is the sound of Oldham experimenting in his Palace cocoon, trying out ideas, learning to sing, learning to write songs, learning about himself inside out no doubt. Oldham sings this so well, it’s almost like he’s hit his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy stride four years earlier than he was supposed to.

This was a case of me not quite realizing how amazing these songs are until I sat down and paid close attention. I’d have to say that they’re not fully satisfying in the lyrical sense, but then a song is not its lyrics alone. Both songs are included on the Lost Blues And Other Songs collection of 1997. “O How I Enjoy The Light” was covered by a band called Katatonia (ugh to that ‘K’) in 2005.

The next single would be “West Palm Beach/Gulf Shores” also from 1994.

About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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