Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, I See A Darkness, 1999

When any artist engages with death as his or her subject matter in an instinctual and sensitive manner lyrically, it generally gets lauded as an artistic triumph. This is perhaps one of the reasons why Will Oldham’s first Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album is still regarded as his best by fans and critics. The deeper reason is simply because he weds that fatalistic poetry to quietly intense and inventive arrangements and some of the most beautiful but subtle melodies we’ve heard from him yet. The lyrics here seem to deal mostly with dark- or death- maladies of the mind; unusual perspectives on things, the battle between the id and the ego, alternative ways of seeing, passing thoughts that most people would never think to catch, probe, expand on, then turn into songs. My experience with I See A Darkness was a period of discovery that took several years before it fully came into its own. Will Oldham albums have always been slow growers for me, usually taking a couple of years before I reach that sweet spot. There’s no cheap thrills here, no pop savvy, no stroke of genius marketing ploys. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums take time, they evolve, develop; in the case of I See A Darkness, it’s a slow moon shadow creeping over your soul. But once you’re under its spell, well….

A Minor Place… you’ll find yourself in a minor place, one of my top five Oldham songs. I’ve always felt like I intuitively understood the lyrics to this song (not something that happens too often), and this is a song where the form and content seem to meld perfectly into one – the minor-key melody, “singing from my little point,” he tells us. The tune opens on a pretty piano motif which plays counterpoint to the drums. The music is kept to a bare minimum, a warm pulsing bass sound. On many of the songs here, Oldham doubletracks his vocal which gives the singing an ethereal quality, especially when the two vocal parts are slightly out of sync with each other. “A Minor Place” is where Oldham began to write songs which opened straight into their choruses: “Well, I’ve been to a minor place / And I can say I like its face / If I am gone and with no trace / I will be in my minor place.” The word minor plays on three different meanings: minor as in child; minor as in not major—of small concern; minor, as in a musical term to denote chords which are somehow less ‘bright’ sounding than their major equivalents. So, if you think about it, the word works in the chorus no matter which definition you consider, but even better is to consider all three meanings at once. It’s pretty simple thereafter; when we disappear off into our minds for a period of despondent or low mood, we’re in a minor place. Leave us be, because it’s nice to go there sometimes. The verses obliquely hint at reasons to visit a minor place. (1) A tendency towards bathos: “As we do what we do fine / So victorious, so benign.” (2) Feeling beaten down by life: “the job that does me harm / Since the scars of last year’s storm / Rest like maggots on my arm.” (3) Disappointment with others: “Thank you man if for the thought / That all my loving can be bought.” Oldham then explains exactly what he means by a minor place. “It’s not a desert nor a web / Nor a tomb where I lay dead / Minor in a sound alone / Yes, a clear commanding tone.” At the end, the Oldham-narrator-singer “thanks” the world that it will “anoint” him, which could mean ‘appoint him as successor to a certain position’, but for what deed? The last line: “If I show it how I hold it”—suggests that what he’ll show the world is a subjective position shaped by one man’s courageous ability to express thoughts most wouldn’t dare. There’s a lovely little faint organ melody at the end. Such a simple, delicate, beautiful song. It appears on the live album Is It The Sea? (2008).

Nomadic Revery (All Around)… again, just a few quiet piano notes, a soft drum beat, but here there’s a certain structure that Oldham uses, which is to start quietly and slowly build the song up, bar by bar into something momentous. This song seems to arise out of a tendency to daydream: “Today was one where, lost in thought / I really feel I am,” which explains the ‘revery’ (sic) in the title. I guess a ‘nomadic revery’ is a way of saying ‘wandering thoughts.’ This gets described in the chorus: “Oh, all around / Oh, all around / It’s kept together / Moving all around.” The first two or three times this is sung in a simple way, though again, Oldham double-tracks his vocal for that same spooky effect. I can only assume he’s talking about his mind, which makes sense – it stays together by moving all around. There’s another line that images the mind as nucleus, “My brain it beams, it’s here at all,” and another image of mind-nomadism as a means of reining in negative thoughts: “Instead of seeing monkeys biting / I lay on the ground / While my hectic traveling partner / Wandered all around.” It’s something about the way the lyrics shift so freely in all of Oldham’s songs, that suggests his narrator is given to nomadic reveries. And as if to prove that point, his thoughts suddenly shift netherward to carnal desires, and his double-tracked vocal seems to multiply in rising, wailing tones: “Oh, all around a left buttock / And all around a right / All around your every curve / I’m going to go tonight,” but he only wants to be held and hid, proclaiming, “But only hold me, hold me … / I just need an evening / With someone nice to hide me.” The last part of the song, with the “all around” chorus being repeated, and the unearthly electric guitar howling in the background with faint dissonance, makes the song truly stand out with a bone-chilling quality that pricks up the hairs on your neck. This appears on the live album Summer In The Southeast (2005).

I See A Darkness… it seems Johnny Cash’s version of this is way more famous than Oldham’s, which is disappointing in a way, because the two are incomparable. I think I’d have to call this the most emotionally arresting song on the album. Like “Nomadic Revery,” the song starts with very sparse instrumentation. A bass note here, a piano plonk there, soft drums. Let’s imagine, as Oldham suggests in his book-length interview with Alan Licht, that the singing persona here is one sad dude monologuing to his friend about what seems like a depression and a plea for help, which is an unusual concept for a song. It’s like some kind of self-help book advice about the importance of communication manifest as a mini-drama in song. “Well,” he says, “you’re my friend / And can you see (what’s inside of me…?)” He goes on to elaborate; “Many times we’ve been out drinking / And many times we’ve shared our thoughts / But did you ever, ever notice / The kind of thoughts I got.” The chord changes seem to move toward something but then pull back and head off in an unexpected direction, which signals the internal struggle in the song, until the chorus, where everything melds into a satisfying melody. So, this fellow assures his friend that he loves people, that he has “a drive to live,” that he hopes “someday buddy, we have peace in our lives,” and “that we can stop our whoring / And pull the smiles inside.” But alas, in opposition to all of these hopes, he sees a darkness that imposes itself, that “comes blacking in my mind.” He hopes “that somehow you you / Can save me from this darkness.” I like that doubled “you” – it seems to emphasize the ‘you’, the buddy, as in “only you, buddy and no one else because I trust you to understand me.” When the chorus arrives each time, the music builds to support it with chiming piano chords, louder drums, but never too momentous, always ending the song before it overstays its welcome. Amazing stuff. Oldham, with what looks like great glee, re-recorded this song in 2012 for Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as a thumping country hoedown. See also Summer In The Southeast (2005) and Is It The Sea? (2008) for live versions.

Another Day Full Of Dread… continues the same mood, a few piano chords, a soft bass. One gets the feeling that the narrator in this song is someone who can fall into terribly black moods, and can be viciously cruel. What brings this on is when you confront him with “stupidity” which makes him “doubly angry.” Falling into this mood is something he dreads. Fortunately he has a way of dealing with it, but first one must recognize that the bad mood is a trap set up by his own mind. In the nursery rhyme of a sing-song chorus we get a few lines which to me are like the verbal equivalent of those *&^?#$! signs you see in comic strips that symbolize cursing: “I say nip-nap / It’s all a trap / Bo bis / And so is this / Whoa whoa / To Haiti go / And watch it all come down / Ding dong / A silly song / Sure do say something’s wrong / Smile awhile / Forget the bile / And watch it all come down.” Following this, one should “become more lively / To bury all of the ugly / Whole persons sometimes / Must be them bodies buried,” which is pretty dark self-loathing kind of stuff and doesn’t exactly sound like the most healthy solution. Perhaps, to sing a “silly song” can wash away the internal poison. Generally, he’s ain’t a bad guy, he likes to have a good time, but today “was another day full of dread.” Dread in its archaic sense can mean to “regard with awe or reverence.” The narrator differentiates between dread and fear, stating that the latter merely amuses him, whereas the former inspires, and indeed inspired this song. The song on the whole is a very quiet, intimate beast, minimal guitar solo in between verses. Oldham’s vocal too, is often quiet, in-your-ear doleful. I like how the final chorus also has two voices, though this time, one is far away.

Death To Everyone… is anti-romantic doleful realism, played on a soft but insistent guitar tic. Oldham’s weary vision of death wears “black dress and black shoe.” But although death brings relief to “every terrible thing,” ultimately this song is more of a celebration of life, because of death. We get some really cool wah-wah guitar on the chorus which pushes the song into weird, shadowy territory: “Death to everyone / Is gonna come.” It’s a pretty simple binary system—you can’t have one without the other. Even something as potentially dull as “hosing” is now “much more fun” because of death. Thus the narrator tells his buddy, “I’m not afraid to die” because “life is long and it’s tremendous.” In this sense, having explained himself, the song turns back to celebrate death for what it gives to life, and he achieves this through an amusing little section that simply goes, “la la la / la la la” which sounds a little like a playground taunt. In fact, throughout, Oldham affects this sort of half-smile behind his vocal. The final verse is magnificent: “Death to me and death to you / Tell me what else can we do die do / Death to all and death to each / Our own god-bottle’s within reach.” I love that image, “our own god-bottle.” What is that? I dunno, but I guess you find out when you die, buddy. Also appears live on Summer In The Southeast (2005).

Knockturne… is a strange little love song, opening straight into the vocal. A ‘nocturne’ is typically a short composition of a romantic or dreamy character, suggestive of night, usually played on piano. Oldham’s ‘knockturne’ seems, on the contrary, rather unromantic (“Someone mawed and put my cock in”) and if there’s a dream here, it’s more of the nightmare variety: “Fire-burned and blew out flowers / … it would be hours / Before I would get burned.” That said, this poetic piece turns loveward two-thirds of the way through; after seeing his cock “lock in” with ‘corner-eyes,’ we learn that “twisters rolled … / And only love was learned.” The final verse brings the romance; “Now I truly love you wholly … And the world so far below me / For ye and me it turned.” Mostly it’s played on piano, a simple repeating two chord structure, except on the last verse, where the music seems to drift away for a brief moment of otherness, distraction, and the song falls away quickly.

Madeleine Mary… is probably my second all-time favourite Oldham song. This is another which opens straight into its chorus, and a punishing, hard quite frightening rhythm section, a reverberating guitar part, a bass note punctuating the 4/4, and an insistent hi-hat tap tap tapping away. The song is a mystery with enough allusion in the lyrics to paint a picture, but it’s never clear exactly who ‘Madeleine Mary’ might be. She could symbolize anyone from a highly respected apostle, disciple and friend of Jesus, to a baby girl who died at birth in 1976. In any case, in this spooky sea-shanty she’s the ship’s mate, and it’s her song that “we” have to sing, because it’s “a tune that all can carry.”  Oldham’s vocal here is magnificent, high, wiry, tenuous, multi-tracked. Some chap called Burly tells his fellow hearties, “if we don’t sing / Then we won’t have anything.” Burly makes me think of ‘burden’ and that’s sort of what eventuates: “All the boys on ship set sail / And the mate was Madeleine-Mary / When her eyes did fill with tears / It was extraordinary.” No one quite knows why she’s so sad though, because “she kept herself kept below / And all her feelings private.” The narrator is one of the sailors who admits that he, along with all of them, wanted a glimpse of her but none were able to. Thus “at night above our sleeping heads / Our sleeping dreams were haunted.” The song slowly gets spookier. The narrator appears to be telling this like it’s a ghost story, because next he says, “So now my kids you’d like to hear / Of one who reached and got her / Well if there was, well, I think / He sleeps beneath the water.” Wow, on paper it’s not quite as exhilarating as hearing it. All I know is that the chorus gets into your head, and suddenly you-the-listener are on that ship having to sing the song of Madeleine Mary. If you don’t, like Burly says, you won’t have anything. The song is like the equivalent of a crypt being opened and a curse coming out. It’s right up there as one of those story-songs that you can hear a thousand times and never get sick of, such is its power to fire your imagination. The song also suggests that for Oldham, singing is all he has. Despite my longish write-up, the song is leave-them-wanting-more short, which only adds to its intensity. This appears live on Summer In The Southeast (2005) too.

Song For The New Breed… is almost as spooky as “Madeleine Mary.” But we’re back to very quiet. A ticklish guitar sound, some piano again, faraway music, a distant electric guitar. The melody is very faint, but eerie, as Oldham effects an incredible falsetto. The lyrics would have you think he’s turning into a werewolf, singing “a song for the new breed growing inside of me.” After describing “your sharp teeth / The way the light hits your eyes / Your scrappy fur,” and “your fists,” we learn that “inside of me / Something is growing.” This thing has a “deep growl,” a “high whine” and a “pure heart.” He tells us that he was made by “Lord … to prove something.” One wonders whether this has something to do with the rebirth of Will Oldham as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, hairy wolf-man. Theoretically it should be a positive thing, but instead it feels like the unsteady decision of someone dedicating himself to his art. There’s fear in here, and something awfully sad too, like the recognition that he can’t go back once the change has taken place. Fear of the unknown perhaps. I’ve always found this song sort of disappears a little because of it’s placement directly after “Madeleine Mary” but after listening closely, I’ve recently become aware of just how important this song is to the effect of the whole album. Oldham’s vocal takes it up and away somewhere into the darkest reaches of his mind. Quite freaky.

Today I Was An Evil One… whereas this song has a much more conventional feel with its regular beat. Lyrically however, more weirdness abounds as Oldham’s set of uncoordinated instinctual trends –  his id – rises to the surface to do battle with the ego. It’s been a bad day, his eyes are hurting, he doesn’t even recall waking up. “The day was spent walking about / And asking questions blindly / And silently and not without / A sense of lapsing dignity.” Then the title of the song—today he was an evil one, which we learn is someone who suffers dumbly while having fun, whereas “tomorrow God will make me good, if I allow her to.” This chorus rises up high and loud, with what sounds like a trumpet intoning along. But meanwhile, the result of being evil and greedy, carried in a precarious Oldham vocal, that emotive wobble, is split skin on “all my fingers / Painfully receding,” and hands that “were dry and itched and hurt / And also … bleeding.” It sounds very much like a follow on from the previous song where the singer had transmogrified into a beast of some kind. “I spent good time with greed,” he tells us, but suddenly, super-ego to the rescue, he understands that the way to fix it is “by withdrawing claim from false completeness / And by humbly allowing / God to grant me sweetness.” This is complicated stuff he’s singing about here, a sort of self-psychoanalysis and healing through song.

Black… in which Oldham sings a song to a colour which has negative connotations for him – “Black, you are my enemy” – the chorus up front again. This seems once again, to represent the splitting of self down the id/ego line. Like all the songs here, it strives to escape the dark side of the self, to keep a lid on it by learning to live with it. Here we have a soft guitar strum behind the vocal. While it’s hard to not imagine Oldham singing about himself here, it could just as well be someone singing about all of us, if we dig into our psyches deep enough. In this song, he understands that Black is a separate part of him that he cannot get close to. Note the singular noun here; “Our life is ruled by enmity.” The singer learns that by learning to love all parts of himself he can weaken Black’s “attack.” Who is Black and where does he come from? He comes “up from under” and what has he destroyed? The innocent child within – “my sense of wonder.” When he turns into “Black” he still has the sense of himself as a separate entity, helpless against Black’s attempts to destroy him. Once again, he realizes that it’s better to hold Black close to him, in order to weaken the attack, as in the saying, “keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.” Trying to beat Black, or kill him, is a mistake, because he’ll only end up “evil.” Better to befriend this character from the id, which he does, by inviting Black to see his room and making him leave behind what had kept them “unallied.” By song-end, the singer and his id “are together / Fairly just inseparable / And in the terriblest of weather / Our bonds are incorruptible.” I would say “what a terribly sad song” but one gets the feeling that Oldham’s not trying to extract any sympathy here; he’s simply describing what is, not turning it into any kind of sob story. In terms of singing and style of song, this harks back to his Palace style to some extent, although its richer in depth of meaning, melody and considered performance.

Raining In Darling… is more fragmentary in its lyrics and floaty of structure, with a regular soft bass drum thump, a brief piano motif, and soft guitar. It’s sung to “Darling” to whom the singer offers himself, his body, and what he’s taken and learned and “re-rendered … with such / With such / With such,” and we never learn what … something inexplicable or ineffable. This forces out of him a beautiful chorus, some heavy piano chords, and an unbridled joy in his vocal lines, reaching for edgy falsetto; “Oh it don’t rain anymore / I go outdoors / Where it’s fun to be / And I know you love me / I know you do.” What an incredible ending to this already incredible record. In fact the sheer emotional release in this song is almost tear-jerky, it’s so happy-sad, and short.

Perhaps one of the best things about I See A Darkness as a collection of songs, is that nothing ever outstays its welcome. All the songs are quite short, melodic, with varying degrees of intensity, and utterly beautiful, yet the somber music betrays the emotional core of the album as that of one weary of fighting internal battles with himself, yet understanding that life goes on and the struggles aren’t going to go away just because he’s made a record about them. In that sense the next album is aptly titled then, 2001’s Ease Down The Road.

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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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2 Responses to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, I See A Darkness, 1999

  1. rimbaud57 says:

    As someone who has followed Oldham’s every twist,I am enjoying these
    locked in a capsule streams immensely.
    Just a point on “Death To Everyone”, i remember an interview at the time
    where Will explained that Hosing was backwoods slang for sex
    which makes a deeper sense of the song, but of course, as so often
    it works any way you wish to interpret it…..

    • No, by all means, I like hearing about these kinds of details & I like hearing that someone’s enjoying the commentaries. I suppose whether ‘hosing’ means sex, or watering the garden, probably doesn’t change the fact that ‘death comes to everyone.’ :)

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