Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Black Dissimulation b/w No Such As What I Want 7”, 1998

Around 1996/7, Will Oldham got together with members of the Dirty Three and several other musicians to record an album of new material, which he ultimately ditched. He says that he found it unsatisfying owing to the disjointed and unfocused nature of the recording process—haphazard selection of musicians who arrived in LA at different times to record their parts. Nevertheless he salvaged some of the songs, two of which made it onto this single, two came out on the CD-only EP Western Music, two more appeared on the Guarapero: Lost Blues 2 collection, while others were rewritten for the Joya album. The album that got ditched was going to be called ‘Guarapero.’ Oldham offers us explanations for the origins of these songs, in short quotes printed on the labels of the single.

Black Dissimulation… Oldham writes: “this is as close to [sic] as I’ll ever get to Nostalgia hopefully; the events portrayed are alternately terrible and god-good but I’ve tried to rose them all up for you equally.” ‘Dissimulation’ is a form of deception where one conceals the truth. How does ‘black’ modify that then? It already seems like a ‘black’ concept, which would make the adjective redundant. Nevertheless, given that this is the first thing to be released under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker, and that the colour ‘black’ prevails upon his first BPB album, I See A Darkness, the phrase seems in keeping with where his poetic mind was leading thematically for the next year or so. This song, like many before it, is very much a ‘poem’ set to music. Musically, it seems to be played mostly on two acoustic guitars, a warm sound, one plucked by Mick Turner of the Dirty Three. We’re beginning to hear a stronger sense of melody appear in Oldham’s vocals too from this point. The song’s first line defines the term: “Sweet ill health has hidden from me / Events about which one has no memory.” So, something is being concealed, presumably by his own mind given that he blames ‘ill health,’ though whether this could be “to protect (him from) or deny” him knowledge of these events, he remains unsure and refuses to ask. So we have a mystery that the narrator can’t quite solve, and listening through the lyrics, one gets the feeling that ‘black’ is used in the sense of ‘black mood.’ A number of symbols are evoked to objectify this emotion. There’s a great line early on, ambiguous, but syntactically accurate: “One drinks just to where one is able to talk,” suggesting on the one hand that the right amount of alcohol could enable the flow of communication, but on the other hand, drinking a lot but not quite to the point where one has lost the power of speech. He has a couple of different melodic phrasings, and there’s that Bonnie characteristic of dropping his voice almost right out on the end of some lines to affect a kind of bathos, dejection; the natural insouciance of his voice. Regarding the concealed events, he sings of noise and confusion. He sings of poking a young dog, “swollen and bald” with a stick. He sings of sitting in the drive and pulling the head down, “an oncoming blow,” drinking wine solo, “to dislike someone and let them so know.” He could let the black mood “burn out” with the howl and steam of a kettle on the stove. He sings of screaming, being alone, persistent denial, disgust, stupidity, hate, dislike and disdain. He’ll take alcohol “however it comes, at the start of a fall.” The final verse suggests even more strongly, through Oldham’s high delicate timbre, that the narrator is the subject of his own discontent: “You’re rude to the relatives, cold to the friends / Unpleasant to God when he comes by the house / One tries to across as the storm it begins / And goes to the inlet to see things out.”  It’s the use of “one” and/or the otherwise elision of the personal pronoun that hints that the subject is himself, which might be the very thing being concealed. So while he never quite opens up to what exactly has caused this black mood, at least he perceives it in order to sing it out of himself.

No Such As What I Want… of this song, Oldham writes: “this portrait of a cold bitch was spurred on by the question who has time for tragedy.” The song has a slow beat, a lovely accordion sound, and great backing vocals from Tiffany White-Pounders. Mick Turner and Jim White of Dirty Three play guitar and drums respectively. The song does something that annoys me personally—Oldham introduces the subject as “it” which is a poor man’s way of creating ambiguity, turning the song into a riddle: “What if it didn’t come back?” he asks, and in the second verse, “She’s gonna miss everything about it.” We have no idea what ‘it’ could possibly be. Similar to “Black Dissimulation” we can really only mine the song for its emotional content through the images and registers of the presentations he makes. The droning background vocals are really quite effective in creating a mood of hardship, the instrumentation is quite powerful, but understated, and Oldham’s vocals bring the forebearing tone of the lyrics up to meet the melody. The song’s several elements come together well. Regarding those lyrics, according to the quotation above, we can assume the song is about a “cold bitch.” When “it” doesn’t come back, she takes it badly—she “puts her arms up around his neck / And squeezes gently as if to break it.” She’s a “crazy woman” who “misleads by staring blankly at the wall.” She is ‘cold’ we are told, and receive the image of a “black cloud” followed by intimations of violent feelings: “So you hooked her on the arm / Ripped her shoulders and split her back / And push her quietly forward.” Quite how the song’s narrator, the ‘she’ and the other ‘he’ in the song relate to one another, is left unclear. The ‘he’ might again be the narrator himself, relating personal events in the second person, as per this final line: “Nice stuff, your thumb in it, you / So scream and groan and I’ll scream too.” Love the “doo doo doo-ing” that takes the song out. Both good songs with insidious melodies.

“Black Dissimulation” can be found on the CD only compilation of singles and other bits and bobs released in 2006, Little Lost Blues. A live version of No Such As What I Want” is available on the CD-only concert album, Wilding In The West from 2008.

The next single would be the Portugal-released “Performs Songs Of Kevin Loyne.

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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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One Response to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Black Dissimulation b/w No Such As What I Want 7”, 1998

  1. esgar says:

    Hi. In fact, the portuguese single was the first one. :) cheers.

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