Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, One With The Birds b/w Southside Of The World 7″, 1998

Both tracks here embrace a much classier recording dynamic than the Palace material, and this is where we’re really starting to see the birth of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, an artist who says he finally realized that making music did not have to be difficult or fraught with despairing notions of personal responsibility. This single was recorded around the time of I See A Darkness and released on Palace Records, a split off label from Drag City that Oldham set up with others. Oldham refers specifically to this single as that time when “we were mapping Bonnie’s genetic code … a second birth.”

One With The Birds… intimacy is such a part of this song that it sounds like it was strictly written for the woman he sings it to. It’s about a lover’s quarrel: “Leave me alone / Is all that I say / When I have nothing / In me to give away.” The music is languorous, barely awake, although whether it works better as morning rather than evening music is hard to say. The pace is a slow cruise through the suburbs, over the trees. The guitar parts are miniature versions of the swampy squiggles we heard on albums like Joya and Viva Last Blues. It’s warm and whimsical, Oldham in wistful mode. The song’s less about melody than mood and message, although it certainly has a pretty enough tune. The narrator next refers to himself as a “purple martin” in her house, which is funny because a quick wiki search reveals that male purple martins have a gurgling and guttural courtship song. She hollers at him, “Why be inhuman? Why be like (that)?” And this is where the birds come in, because birds such as robins and doves have so many loves, which might hint that he’s slept around, and he’s been way too honest about it. To the narrator, this is what it means to be inhuman—to not consider another’s feelings is to be “one with the birds,” which renders us indifferently communicative, like a bobwhite’s song, which connects back to the narrator’s human behaviour at the beginning of the song, “Leave me alone is what I say / When I have nothing / In me to give away.” He wakes up one morning and decides that she’s one with the birds too; “You’re one with a whippoorwill / You’re one with a goose.” That whippoorwill might not be a good sign though—according to American folk legend, a whippoorwill in literature, poetry or song, can prefigure death. And sure enough, the narrator tells her, “Tweet with me / And widely spread / Your olive wings / Embrace my head / Fly with me / Til we are dead.” The music builds here, louder, creating drama. Interestingly these lyrics hark back to the track, “Turkey Vulture” on Oldham’s very first 7” release, Goat Songs, with a verse that offers the exact same sentiment. After naming a bunch of different birds, we learn, in appropriate prose, that “a swallow will tell you / Without using misleading heartrending words.” Oldham offers us wisdom at song end: “When we hide our feelings / We may as well fly away.” Thus to hide one’s feelings is to be human, but to speak the wordless truth like a bird acknowledges that birds cannot help but sing their feelings. Oldham is one who communicates through song, like a bird, the inhuman bastard.

Southside Of The World… is more upbeat, faster than the A-side. More of that scratchy though melodious, sweetly ticklish guitar. The tone of the chorus voices is hushed, while Oldham sings a little flatly, matter of factly. The chorus voices offer “southside of the world” rejoinders to each line Oldham sings. The swinging tune is immensely catchy. It’s not difficult to imagine, say 18th  or 19th century England shipping its unwanted riff-raff off to New South Wales when you hear the words. The song is constructed as a series of questions posed by the speaker. When I was a child, he asks, “where were the rapists?” And what about the gun-toting drunkards and the women who spread disease? Where were they too? Why, “southside of the world,” answer the ever-present male chorus. Why did they go there? “To make their own law.” And so it follows, ingeniously, that “we must go too / If we want our freedom / … / If we want happy families / It’s what we must do.” Right on. So there’s a sense of irony about these ‘bad’ people, and the narrator dreams of escaping into their world, where judges won’t be flinging out judgments willy-nilly on the misfits, which include those with “donkey ears,” “honky tears,” “black blood” and the “blood of queers.” Our narrator sides with these outcasts, probably because when he was young, the “rapists … were my neighbours, that’s why I’m so wild.” The song finishes with the repeated lines, “Come with me to the southside / Where we’ll make our home.” A song of transition and hope, and something less of a protest song than an anti-resistance song, given that power needs resistance. Neat tune too.

These two tracks are also included on the CD EP Blue Lotus Feet which includes five other tracks not available on vinyl. David Gray covers “One With The Birds” on a covers album of his, although having heard it, I’m reminded why Will Oldham is so good, and why I don’t go in for piano-led sappy soaring solo artists like David Gray. Gray ruins the song for me by overdoing it, making it too dramatic, whereas Oldham’s secret genius is always his understatement, which is integral to the charm of his voice. You only have to hear Oldham’s cover of AC/DC’s “Big Balls” to understand what I mean. He has this killer ability to flatten something into trivia, to downplay it, to scorn the big statement by keeping things intimate, by not caring. The next single after this would be “Let’s Start A Family (Blacks) /A Whorehouse Is Any House,” released in 1999, just after the superlative I See A Darkness album.

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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