This was produced by Kramer, a name I associate with those Galaxie 500 records. Oldham has said that he sees 7” singles as a way of experimenting with a sound or style, so that if it ultimately fails, at least it’s only two songs and not a whole album. Thus the “West Palm Beach” single was his attempt at the Jimmy Buffet formula by singing songs about the beach in order to tap into our collective nostalgia. In fact, Buffet’s sound was sometimes called “gulf and western” which may inform the vibe of these songs as much as their titles. When I first heard them, I did latch onto some kind of 70s aesthetic, though bizarrely the only thing I could think of was Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana,” which just goes to prove that Oldham had tapped into something nostalgic, even if for me it was more of a disco association rather than ‘gulf and western.’ Still, no matter how beach party Oldham gets, he’s still Will Oldham; things are gonna get twisted round the honest screw, and they do. Read on for some tropic downers…
West Palm Beach… glides in on a warm wing, a soft, slowly toned melody, a voice singing of the blues, as if the blues are a disease of the vocal chords, and the vocal chords can only but convey their feeble demise. In this song the narrator is miserable; he can’t get the sand out of his shoes, Florida’s done a number on his blues, “and the sky is threatening black and gray and the sun is a festering red.” It gets worse—his partner hasn’t gotten out of bed yet which means he won’t be getting fed. What a miserable sod. If there was a happier version of himself, “the surf has swallowed him up, he’s a memory now.” There’s some interesting use of language in the second verse. His Grandma, who lives down the road, has been nice to him since 73 “when her sun lost his lights,” which may well mean when Grandpop died, because “his ghost is a rising host above the briny blur.” And in one of his archaic usages of ‘would’ for ‘wish’, Oldham delivers this swanky line: “I would that soon some maid would swoon and his soul would capture her.” Not sure who the soul belongs to though. In the final verse, he’s forced to stay around for longer than anticipated because a “break in the weather has got the partner down.” Tired sunburnt chords twinkle and chime around the voice, but there’s sunset in the air, in the warm ambience, a cool 80s keyboard line drifts across the flat horizon, and that’s exactly what the song suggests—a flat oceanic horizon, a few wilting palm trees, washed out colours, everything sunbleached. The song ends in doledrums; “If she mourns too long I’ll know something’s wrong and I’ll leave her be / You can tell by his shoes he was born to lose, he was born for me.” Bummer in the summer, man. It’s interesting how much internal rhyme he uses in those final two verses, not something you see much of in Palace songs. Perhaps that’s something Oldham borrowed from Buffet, or from ‘gulf and western’ more generally. In any case, this particular memory of the beach, while evoking beach imagery such as sand, sun, surf and sea, seems to be a holiday that went on too long. It certainly is nostalgic, and genuinely regretful sounding. For some reason it reminds me of a karaoke video—not the music, just those faked broken hearts of a Japanese karaoke video.
Gulf Shores… is even warmer and softer than “West Palm Beach.” You can practically feel the sand between your toes, under your legs, a deck chair, a balmy night where you feel you’re missing out on something, some kind of fun happening elsewhere. But between Oldham’s voice and the odd, retreating melody, we sense that the lyric is far more subtle and complicated than yer everyday holiday song. The lyric seems to point to a one-sided argument between the narrator and his sister. Once again, beach imagery informs the scenery, phrases such as “laid long in the sun,” “laid here by the waterside,” “a blue heron in flight,” “a cold and fruity drink,” the surf, a starfish and bars that “light their lights.” All of this however is juxtaposed against the condition of his sister who seems terribly depressed; “You must start looking up,” he tells her. He’s concerned about how long she’s been laying in the sun, mentioning it twice more during the song. “Have you thought you could waste away?” he asks, then tells her, “you don’t care much for yourself,” observing circles “deep beneath [her] eyes.” He seems genuinely concerned, offering to take her for a drive, watch that blue heron in flight, see the sights of town or “drive down to another beach.” It’s very subdued, a little bit of poignant piano joins for the interlude, while pedal steel-type notes sweep hither thither, breezily. Sister has “let the family down,” all their friends have gone, and so too, the narrator wants to “disappear from sight.” Despite the lyrics, Oldham doesn’t sound upset so much as vague and weary, realizing that his efforts to revive her may well be in vain. There’s a backing chorus swooning across the songscape, and various tones buzzing about creating atmosphere. And there you have it—another Oldham-inflected beach song. That old pig honesty, that determination to look things in the eye and describe the warts and all, and that wonderful predilection for turning tropes on their heads.
“West Palm Beach” and “Gulf Shores” can be heard just as they are here, on Lost Blues And Other Songs. Both songs also appear on “The Mountain” which was a 12” EP collecting together these two songs and those from another 7” single called “The Mountain/(End Of) Travelling” released in 1995.
Re-recorded Nashville versions of both “West Palm Beach” and “Gulf Shores” appear on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Sings Greatest Palace Songs.