I’ve just read two reviews of this EP on the internet – the only two I could find after a very quick search – and neither reviewer seemed to realize that the lyrics to Get On Jolly are taken from a book called Gitanjali by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore. I’m not being a know-it-all – Marquis and Bonny draw our attention to this quite clearly on the record label (see pic below). It’s also no secret that the Marquis de Tren is the nom de plume of Mick Turner, guitarist in the Dirty Three, who Oldham had worked with before. Okay, so back to Gitanjali – which translates as “a prayer offering of song” or “devotionals” – it was first published in England in 1913 with a foreword by W.B. Yeats. Oldham says in his interview book WO on BPB that he found a copy for 25 cents, and liked it enough to get together with Turner to record them as half-sung half-spoken pieces, a mini-opus if you like. To my mind they keep it within the tradition of Indian music, as in free flowing, improvised, unstructured compositions (or at least unstructured-sounding to the Western pop-ear). These are free verse poems set to improvised atmospheric looping guitar music, so they were never going to translate into song-songs as such, not easily anyway, although Oldham says that he adapted or restructured some of the lines. As for the song titles – the original book contained something like 103 poems, known simply by number, hence the six selections here. What makes this a worthwhile listen however, is that the poems are interesting and lyrical, not alienating to the Western reader, even relatable. For me, this is pure in-the-moment music. You’d wear your needle out before you ever heard a hook on the thing. The process of selecting six pieces and presenting them in a slightly altered form, does of course create a brand new text, quite cut off from its original form. Time to get on down and jolly…
2/15… is a great place to open and makes perfect sense for someone like Oldham to be sing-reciting it. The music is very tentative at first, a few low guitar notes scattered here and there, a backwards guitar loop starts up, and Oldham’s forlorn voice comes stepping across this ‘sound bed.’ It’s all about being a singer, the joy that comes from singing for someone, seeing their reaction, and knowing singing means “I touch things I can’t touch, I touch parts of you I really can’t touch.” Singing for him means that his “love spreads wings like a glad bird flying over the road,” and he gets so “drunk with the joy of singing” he’ll forget himself and “call you my friend.” We get some weird backwards voices or something, utterly surreal, faintly mixing with the guitar notes plinking mellowly along. He finishes by reminding us, “I’m here to sing you songs,” even though they’re “songs that have no purpose.” ie. singing for singing’s sake. The other great line in here is this: “I know you take pleasure in my singing.” Just how far into his listeners’ ears the singer/poet means this phrase, and whether a specific person or a general audience, the fact is that the phrase has become truer over the years. I for one, take great pleasure in Oldham’s singing. Do I take great pleasure in hearing him on “2/15”? Hm. Not quite as much pleasure as I take from hearing him sing songs with melodies. More backwards guitar effects, and bits of wind instruments create sonic weirdness before the song dies away.
25… is a love poem. “Let me fall asleep without fighting” he sings, seeking trust in himself as well as the partner (briefly double tracking his vocal on that line about trust), trusting himself such that “all other desires that distract me / Day and night are false and empty to the core,” in order that all his desire is focused on the loved one. This trust extends to the morning when “things will all be good and finer.” And finally, he knows that “all my dark desires I denied or gave into / Will become part of the thing I give to you.” Normally I might find these words a bit tiresome, even corny, but hearing them in Oldham’s voice I think two things. They seem in keeping with his own kind of lyrical concerns to some extent (especially when he sings of “dark desires”) but the man also has a way with a voice that registers them as sincere sad sentiments. I find myself willing to be taken in, especially here when he affects that brief descending falsetto. The music is almost identical to the first track. Faint, backwards whining guitar, plinky guitar notes bubbling about, a warm bass note anchoring the voice and effects. It’s important to remember that in a traditional devotional the narrator treats the lover in a way that crosses the religious/secular boundary deliberately. Where does Oldham stand on this boundary? We understand that he only provides a voice here. I think he enjoys fusing dimensions, obfuscating boundaries, sitting all over the fence, until there is no fence and no notion that one ever existed. This one was nicer than the first track.
81… I like the opening lines here, which seems somehow Oldhamesque: “On many an idle day I’ve grieved over lost time / Moaned and groaned and rolled my bones but there is no lost time?” And furthermore, given Oldham-Billy’s predilection for writing lyrics which openly celebrate oral sex, the following lines seems specially selected and chosen: “Hidden in the heart of things you make seeds into sprouts / Hidden in the heart of things you make buds into flowers / And hidden in the heart of things you make flowers into edible things.” Actually, here’s another love song/devotional which asks for permanence, in rather direct contrast to the opening line from Arise Therefore: “In the arms of your old charms,” sings Oldham, “let me forever bask.” The music here is slightly more sparse, giving it a deeply reverential feel, so quiet, and with two voices in some parts of the song. The singing (if you can call it that) too is pale and subdued, soft, vulnerable, painting sad colours over the ultra-minimalist soundscape.
86… also uses weird backwards voice tones to create a slightly creepy effect, like the sample of a monk moaning, singing. This is a spoken word piece, about a chap who “has crossed an unknown sea” to bring a “call” from the narrator’s loved one. Naturally this makes the narrator so happy he’ll “worship him with folded hands and tears” despite having a full heart. Once the messenger exits however, “leaving a dark shadow on my morning,” the narrator will realize again how lonely he is, how “only my lonely self will remain as if it were an offering to you.” Once again, the secular/religious boundaries are blurred here. And Oldham’s voice gets sort of twisted into the same weird level of the background voices giving this a slightly blurred, disintegrating feel.
64… picks up the theme of loneliness from “86” (although in the original, obviously “86” would come after “64”), but here it’s a short narrative about a chap, whose house is very “dark and lonesome.” He meets a woman on her way to the river. She’s carrying a light to look for animals in the water. He asks her several times if she’ll bring the light to his house. Once she finds there are no animals she shines her light “uselessly into the sky” to send the light to a star. Finally she heads home, still refusing to shine her light into his home. He watches her wander away as “her light get[s] lost among the trees and in the lights of houses.” Being a narrative, the music, cymbals and drums, organ and guitar, swell and fall in miniature poses of drama, while Oldham raises his voice, perhaps to show the narrator’s exasperation that he can’t get her to shine his light into his lonely dark house. This is more spoken than sung too. “Lend me your light,” he asks, and especially in the last part of the song, even though it’s still kept at a very faint level, the brief subtle crescendos of Oldham’s voice seem to have real impact and emotional turmoil.
66… this one reminds me of “Madeleine Mary” from I See A Darkness, in that the subject matters is a woman who “ruled yet dwelled alone and apart / Nobody ever saw her face to face / And she stayed alone… / Waiting for you to see her.” She, who “had never smiled or given it up in the morning” always played hard to get: “words have wooed but never won her / Persuasion has reached to her but come up empty.” The poor old narrator can’t get her out of the depth of his being or the core of his heart. This is why she rules him. Tough stuff. The music is pretty much the same as the first two tracks with added cymbal. Snippets, particles, shreds of music, percussion, guitar, backwards effects; all trickle along like a stream almost out of water. “I found a joy of my own” sings Oldham at the end, several times over, his voice like an echo drifting out across the realms of being, reassuring himself. And slow groany fade out.
According to Oldham, a lot of people have told him how much they like this record. The whole thing is made of subdued, atonal, indefinite, abstract, improvised poetic and musical whimsy. Not ‘soporific’ exactly, but even with a lyric sheet included, the words and Oldham’s sultry/sulky singing style aren’t exactly designed to make you sit up and take notice. Quite the opposite. They somehow manage to shun the listener with their mumbly, enfeebled, but heartfelt ‘sincerity.’ I’ve found it sounds a whole lot better with the volume turned way up. It’s that kind of stuff—if you’re not totally in the zone then it drifts by like beige wallpaper with a strange pattern embossed into it. It’s quite short too, running time about sixteen~seventeen minutes.
In 2012 Oldham and Turner would work together again under the same royal monikers, releasing the Solemns EP in April 2013. Click HERE to see the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy complete vinyl discography.