Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Ease Down The Road, 2001

Ease Down The Road, while perfectly enjoyable, has always been my least favourite Will Oldham album, while also being my first. A friend made me a copy on MD back in 2002. Listening to it closely in preparation for this commentary has revealed a kind of thematic arc that makes the album so much more interesting than the warm melodic easy listening country vibe would have you believe. On the surface the album doesn’t seem as challenging as Oldham albums usually are. There’s little that stands out at first—no coarse, spare, or unusual instrumentation, nor overt experiments or quirky structures. Gone too is that tickety minimalist guitar jangle of the Palace days. Even the lyrics are nicely organized into neat little stanzas, often perfect quatrains. Lyrically though, I’m not complaining. He still explores those curlicues of thought that produce anti-moral stories and sentiments in his perfect post-modern vein. I’m a big fan of melody of course, and this is certainly an album of tunes, not huge tunes, but poppy enough to catch in your daily teeth. Perhaps the other thing that I miss is the heightened way Oldham uses his voice—here he rarely rises beyond an even, stable kind of feel. The fragility is not so evident, and with that smoother mood in his voice we lose some of the immediate or more delicate emotion. That may also be a result of the lyrical content, which by album end, seems somehow contented. Although there’s still a fair hefty dose of twisted ideas and dark sentiment. The album is aptly titled though, because when he does sing about stoving people’s heads in and screwing other men’s wives, for the most part, it seems to have happened in the past. Ease on into it Bumstead…

May It Always Be… is a love song through and through, a statement of devotion to a lover, partner, who supports the song’s narrator, makes him complete, be what he is, faults and all. It starts off then, sweetly, soft beat, mellow gurgling guitar, piano chords, with Oldham singing in soft tones, requesting, “I’ve been with you for a fairly long time / May I call you…mine?” This turns into a wish for permanence; “May it always be / Please don’t leave my side, remember I love you.” The chorus contains something quite brilliantly poetic—one of those lines the meaning of which seems clear but reads ambiguously; “If you love me and I’m weak, then weaker you must love me more / To re- enforce what’s also strong and all the love we have in store.” He asks her into the bedroom where “we’ll play bride and groom,” but always alluding to his weakness: “If you had not been born…/ … I would not have had strength to grow,” and this intriguing line: “None of what I have done wrong was really done against you.” But all is never perfect. “In the morning we’ll wrestle,” and “won’t we be, won’t we be, won’t we be happy / And we will rise in anger, love and ardour / Shining…shimmering in love’s armour.” Thus being in love has its pitfalls, and worse, ‘love’ is imaged as ‘armour’ that one can wear to protect oneself, presumably from the world. Oldham never quite sounds like he’s pleading in this song, but rather, like he’s using his own branded logic to have her understand. And there’s female backing vocals on one verse followed by a short, softly searing guitar solo. The pace is mid-tempo, sweet melody, nice tune, but something quietly dissatisfying about this song. Two live version of this: one on Summer In The Southeast, 2005, and one on Funtown Comedown, 2009.

Careless Love… is a strange sad love song. Just voice and soft shimmering organ tone, rising and drifting behind the voice, floating in the mist, over the moors, fog and cliffs. This time the narrator is admitting (I think) having done wrong, calling his love “careless” by writing to one lover that “I’m above … / a cloud all flat and white / And with another love tonight.” The carelessness causes the cloud to sink, grounding the love “into the floor / To loving breathe no more.” They argue as he leaves his lady “limp on the floor,” slamming the door, he apologizes, says he misses her, “bye-bye” and “cry cry.” This would all be kind of generic lyrical material (and it is) if not for the way the song is performed in some sort of highlands or Gaelic aesthetic, all soft echoing poignancy and a beautiful falsetto towards the end, as Oldham’s voice almost merges with the organ. Lovely piece, very short.

A King At Night… warm bass, soft tones, and slow rhythm, with a main beat that suggests the foot being put down, the king on his throne. Oldham sings this in his usual unsentimental voice, sounds like magic and seems to have the faintest hint of merriment, a knowingness that the words he’s singing are wildly unconventional, but enjoying the fact. Of course, one can sense the ironic touch as the singer describes the lonely way he begins each day in his kingdom: With “grime on my face,” and “crust in my eye” and no-one around, everyone having left without saying goodbye. He has hate in his heart, blood on his hands “from the murder of a man.” Even his queen is gone, “a fine looking lady” whom we learn with humorously matter-of-fact poise, “liked to go down on me / And I liked to go down on her too.” Unlike other rulers such as the “Taj” or “Rog”, he starts each day in his kingdom alone. Each verse ends with the admission, “this is how I start another day in my kingdom.” The point seems to be that one may decree oneself royalty if one so wishes, to enjoy the good times, and if anyone tries to prevent you, call them a “fuck” and explain “it’s not your kingdom too.” There’s something similar about this and “May It Always Be,” – a restraint, a pulling back, a frustrating feeling. You want the song to burst but it refuses to. The melody seems a tad too simple, even while the song fascinates, but it’s one of the better numbers here.

Just To See My Holly Home… is by far the poppiest song on the album and was released as a CD single, perhaps for radio play. Again the melody is very basic, and while it’s super-catchy, the tame speed leaves you craving something hard, ripsnorting and loud, even while your heart soars along with the mid-section when there’s about four singers all in unison singing about the “bloody planet.” So anyway, this is another love song of sorts, perhaps more ironic this time, with a sickly chorus that goes, “Just to see my holly home / We will live just us alone / Safely in our holly home.” What’s a holly home? Does it mean “holy”? Or holly, like a prickly hedge. So it’s some kind of odd song about domestic bliss. The humour, if indeed that’s what it is, comes in the first two verses: “Evil Jack he walks alone / Swings a club and stinks something awful / We’ll give him a painful jawful,” while “Sarah walks a slinky strut / Very gorgeous and anxious slut / Has a love scar on her wrist / We’ll give her our painful fist.” And this violence eventually extends to the narrator and his partner’s babies, “one, two, three,” who, once they’ve grown up, the parents will “pound them down and pound them out” and “hide their bodies in the reeds / Shallow bed of soil and leaves.” Once “we’ve ended all who’d harm us,” there’ll be “no one left here to alarm us,” and “we live just us alone / Safely in our holly home.” That comes only after the world’s been flooded of course. These ideas suggest biblical themes, the wrath of God, King Herod, Moses, and Noah. An ironic song about domestic bliss as the result of a vicious crusade? Oldham singing in a slightly wry, dry, cheerless voice.

At Break Of Day… is a classic ‘cold’ Bonnie-narrator, where a love can only ever last so long, in this case, “till break of day.” He wakes up alone, mouth dry, cold sheets, quite similar to the narrator of “A King At Night.” Some lover calls him in the night, perhaps to come over and see him, which is fine, but at break of day, he tells us, “I’m ending all of it.” By the chorus, the beat picks up, really pretty acoustic guitar, nice warm beat, rising tune, and all drawing up to this wondrous chorus where it sounds like he’s planning to top himself. “Dawn is mine,” he says, “but I will share it / With whatever bird will wear it / On her body bare and pink.” I get the feeling this miserable narrator is pining for an ex-lover, dreaming of her return, and wonders whether he should unlock his door in case she “should come this way / And in and have a drink and dancing.” He fantasizes about having a roll in the hay with her, but alas he realizes that she’s already gone: “I hate myself when I’m alone / It’s just with you I feel okay,” and the only way he can make her feel sorrow is for him to be gone at break of day. Other male vocal joins for the chorus. We get a pleasant interlude with electric guitar, a thudding rollicking rhythm. Songs sounds very much like If You’re Feeling Sinister-era Belle and Sebastian. Easy listening, likable, but a bit soft and weary. This also appears on Summer In The Southeast, 2005.

After I Made Love To You… and if that last song hadn’t made you feel too comfortable, then this one slows the tempo right down, close mic’s Oldham, plus backing vocal, with a woodblock tock beat, thick hesitant moody bass, pretty piano augmentation, and female vocal helping on the middle verse. There are two others vocalists on the album, Harmony Korine (male) and Catherine Irwin, she with one of those sweet high voices that blend so brilliantly with Oldham’s. He’s said in interview that the female vocal somehow completes him, fills in the other half of him, when he sings, which is why it’s a reoccurring thing across most of his albums, achieving its wonderful mercurial heights on the brilliant The Letting Go album. Anyway, I’m getting distracted, because this song has never really caught my interest much. It’s another love song, in which the narrator, breathless, “eloquent,” lying in the dark with his lover as per the title, struggles with conflicted feelings of bliss and guilt for not feeling guilty after what seems to have been great sex: “In your arms I’m softly resting / Memories of you undressing /And your lips my final blessing.” Seems like a song of sexual healing—he realizes that the “embrace that I’d been lacking / Has been found with kisses smacking / And two bodies there attacking / I and you.” These lovers are sharing a “rented room” in which they’re “doing something filthy,” which suggests an illicit quality to their love. Why no guilt then? It’s because “we love the now,” and something about how making love can never be a bad thing, ever. Fair enough. Bit slow, too pleasing on the ear for me. A new version was recorded for the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy on Will Oldham 10″ EP, 2012.

Ease Down The Road… is a song that somehow justifies adultery. It begins gently, with clear acoustic guitar, a crisp pony-trotting beat. The narrator is driving a woman called Eleanor on “a simple trip / To see her husband’s family,” but at some point (presumably he stops driving) he lays his head upon her hip. So far so good – no naughty play, as “all due respect was meant.” However, “the winds were in agreement” that he was “answering the call / Of awkward and true feeling.” Her husband’s a fireman, and so, with a bit of word play, the narrator gives the husband “duty” by “duly” trying to “light a fire / Upon his rightful booty.” It would seem that “driving” might be metaphorical, “as through the hills I drove her.” He says that an illicit affair can be good only “if it is a secret with the lovers / Who… / Need the love of others.” And so they go at it, “as in the passenger position / Eleanor was thrashing.” As they then “eased down the road” he sings of feeling “a little guilt” over “some guilt spilt,” which gets “added to our load.” Lots of suggestive double entendre word play. As with all the songs here, it’s a light, pretty melody, although I like this one more because you can hear the delicate acoustic guitar and superb use of banjo, not overdone. The narrative is stronger too, with an obvious chronological sense to the story. We get some “do-do doo-doo” stuff at the end to a couple of piano chords. Nice. Also appears on Summer In The Southeast.

The Lion Lair… is another song, same pace, bit slower perhaps, ostensibly about being alone or going it alone: “I took road and said goodbye / Friends go one way I went mine.” But he soon gets lost, out in the open, “feeling sickly” and thus vulnerable: “I am outside, almost one with / All the life in the lion lair.” But fortunately for our lone bonnie warrior “no evil came” and it seems that because of the treeless flat, red rocks and sky and earth-grumbled stones all around him, his natural inclination is to immediately start masturbating with a “hand on shaft and gripped his ball” fantasizing that “your mouth would come down on it / Feel your lips sink warm upon it.” Once he’s over his little erotic episode, the beasts and birds come to his rescue, “called me kin / Bathed me and they tucked me in.” So, it seems to be a song about leaving the easy life behind for a life of danger that turns out well in the end, a risk taken, a quick wank and a better life gained. Genius. I think about here is where I start to wish the album had more variety. Listening to it closely is nice, and rewarding, but the lack of variety starts to grate. This song has great lyrics, but it’s presented in the same voice, same tones, same simple instrumentation, same easy tune, that I feel my interest drifting. Pity. The last half of the song drifts too, voices merge and become background, and while Oldham singing “In the lion lair” in a blurry rising way, is pretty cool, it makes me want to grind my teeth. The song goes on too long, although I think this is the first time we hear a violin, which is a nice touch.

Mrs. William… more horniness and adultery for our lonely narrator, this time with the wife of a certain William. The violin is back, giving this a bittersweet feel, but the pace and sheer lack of interest or quirkiness in Oldham’s voice, has always rendered this song, for me, one that gets lost back up the second half of the album. It does have a more jaunty rhythm, nice guitar strumming, but the vibe and mood is kept so even-keel beam-balanced that you feel that they’re not risking anywhere enough musically to keep up with the risqué lyrics. He sings to Mrs. William, telling her, “you know you shouldn’t come into a place like this alone,” but if you do, well, “I’ll abide / But it isn’t usually my thing to do another’s bride.” Turns out he wants her quite badly, willing to sell his heart, brain, love, fame, mother (maybe) “and brother too / To raise the stake to pay for you / To get you from his side.” The thing is, this cunning chap half hopes that old William, “that blackguard boy” will steal Mrs. William back again, after a little tussle . We must remember however, as per the ‘if’ clause paraphrased above, that this is all conditional on Mrs. William leaving “a place alone,” which he thinks is something she’ll never do. Some weird stuff in the last two lines, more sexual innuendo, “beasties and the flora” which sounds like ‘birds and bees’ and some kind of warm gathering in: “You’re part of our eternal home.” This has a stronger country feel, with lap steel and violin, and whistling.

Sheep… is easily my favourite song on the album, all haunted tension and withheld melodic release in a rising minor chord dark anthem about, um, being born “in sheep’s blood plain and simple” but rising up to destroy one’s enemies to ultimately prove “I’ll be loved by any old slut.” With that shimmery violin intoning behind the moody strumming, this really reminds me of the Tindersticks. It revives the themes of “A King At Night” (ruler of one’s own realm), “Just To See My Holly Home,” (destroying anyone standing in one’s way), and “The Lion Lair” (finding a way to survive). Yes, apart from the themes of adultery and true love, we also have a lot of violence and destruction here, plus a weird phase-shifted backing vocal. In this song, the narrator seems to want revenge for those who laughed at him. He suffers for his fragility, gets very cold, “all white and frosty” and so eventually grows and kills them, or wills himself a greater history “out of massacre and mystery.” He sets himself “marching onward / … running ever forward.” I do like this line: “I built a shield of wooden baffle.” Is this Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy singing about Palace one wonders? He retires by a fire inside his shield, and thence comes the wisdom learned: “Everyone will tell you it’s evil to be / A free-thinking pecker like bonnie old me / But I’ll flex my armies and blow out my gut / And prove I’ll be loved by any old slut.” A humourous ending to be sure, and now he’s got all that negative bile out of his system, “I can leave here and go and find you,” he says. The backing voice starts to sound like Thom Yorke on the title track from Kid A. It has that slightly scary vibe, always rising on a minor chord to a point where the suspense kills. What a great song.

Grand Dark Feeling Of Emptiness… I like this one a lot too. No beat at first, just Oldham, guitar, other guitarist, a slightly rawer sound and a classic minor-key folk tune type feel. It’s another that I’m inclined to interpret as BPB singing about his own past, being born into this new skin, the mask or persona of BPB worn over Will Oldham. In his former life, he went over the hill only to be beaten and broken by “Billy and Frankie and Henry and Joe,” who aimed to “prove I was nobody.” And he believes he became a nobody, a pain which filled up his heart with “that grand dark feeling of emptiness,” which sounds like a reference to the kind of thoughts mulled over on the I See A Darkness album. He ponders what caused him to escape from that former life, what turned him loose, and settles on “rain” and “gunning” and “point-break and buckle and singing and cunning” that set him running, “and I never looked back from then on.” He raises his voice beautifully on those lines. And then a backing male voice joins, in low low tones. So, he’s off on his own into this new world, “learning bit by bit / About the make and model shit,” afraid that he’ll lose his humanity if he doesn’t have kids, which will turn him into “worm or virus.” He then realizes that his songs are his ‘babes’, which live among “folks’ ears” where they hang and never grow old, because they’re frozen in time. He looks forward then to the golden years, which can be filled in with happiness, “in starlight and gold.” The tune does sound vaguely familiar but it’s a beauty. And with three or four voices, one female, two male, singing towards the end, they keep the song sounding vital and tense.

Rich Wife Full Of Happiness…  is yet another love song, this time of what seems to be wedded bliss, and her name is Lilly. It’s country pop, probably second catchiest after “Just To See My Holly Home,” with jiggy strum and banjo. There’s several voices in the mix, a joyous chorus sung every second verse, which goes “Lilly can take it with a smile and not a frown / In the room where she lives blessed I guess / She wears my favor and shows it around / And in doing so I too get blessed.” On later verses, we get a brilliant vocal combination with Oldham and what I can only describe as classic female country – not sure whose voice it is though. Really nice. And combing through these lyrics, despite the song’s odd title, I find it hard to detect any kind of obvious irony, only words of conjugal happiness which sort of spill over into explicit sexual conjugal activity. “She has my baby and things are fine,” eventually leads to a verse like this: “A shark and a dog – now you’re laughing / The dog licks the shark dry in your photographing / And I lick you dry until you’re laughing / My finger is in your behind.” Too much information? Well, no because, he tells us, “I woke up fat and almost unhappy / But the bigger the laugh the bigger the belly / And I bellow out and the whole bed it shakes /And you smile at my laugh as it rocks you awake.” So, rich wife full of happiness indeed. This was a great song to end on.

There’s not really a dud song here. What the album lacks is dynamic shifts both between and within songs. That doesn’t go for every song here, but there are places on the album where you just wish they’d let looser, gone harder or higher, or wackier. The only song that stands out in that sense is the dreamy “Careless Love” and “Sheep” but apart from “Just To See My Holly Home” and “Rich Wife Full Of Happiness” which both stand out for their pop smarts, the rest of the album blurs together too seamlessly, meaning you really have to pay attention to the lyrical dimensions if you want to mine it for the riches that are definitely embedded at quite subtle levels in the music/theme/instrumentation/poetry cross-pollination. At the end of the day, I find Ease Down The Road too easy to like, and therefore, not one I pull out to play too often. While next album Master And Everyone actually slows things down even more, I’m pretty sure it pulls a stronger punch than this.

LP insert sleeve

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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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