Matt Sweeney & Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Superwolf, 2005

I walked into Kichijoji’s Disc Union in 2005, the week Superwolf was released, and without knowing anything about it, but not quite being the Bonnie fan I was about to become, bought it on a whim. I went home and played it once or twice a day, became quickly addicted and continuing playing it daily for at least a month, and I was thereafter sold as the kind of blind fan who would pick up anything and everything BPB as soon as it was released. So even though year zero for me was 1995 when I saw Oldham live and then again in 2002 when I acquired my first Bonnie album, Ease Down The Road, 2005 was my true year of reckoning…

Let me start by saying this album blows my mind in the same way Astral Weeks blows my mind. It drifts and floats and divebombs and carnage crashes but mostly it swoons and aches, disconnected from any solid center, from any gravitational sense of what song can be. It’s not jazz, but it seems to borrow from a jazz sensibility; the idea that you can take a song wherever you want whenever you want. I don’t know enough about musical notation and rhythmical patterning to say with conviction that these songs eschew structure—I’m sure they don’t—but they sometimes give that impression anyway. But like Astral Weeks, Superwolf understands you can go anywhere so long as you mine each melodic seam for its implicit emotive possibilities. And what strange possibilities. “Love will protect you,” although “a monster will get you,” sang Oldham on Master And Everyone, an album about lost love. But Superwolf is voraciously in love, all-consumingly so, like a weird religion. I’m quite certain there’s not an overarching narrative to this album, and yet I can’t help wanting to find one. Within the course of the album things turn bad, the Superwolf-narrator’s overpowering desire (possibly ironic) eventually catches up with him, and hits like a bad dream. But the central ambiguity is this: Is he really this much in love? Or is the song’s narrator mocking the object of his affections? Has she asked for so much of him that he’s decided to give her more than she can handle in order to deliberately drive her away? Besides the lyrics, the album’s highlights are Sweeney’s wondrous electric guitar textures and arpeggios in support of both musicians’ amazing conjoined vocal arrangements.

My Home Is The Sea… is an amazing song to open with, slow winding bass line, quiet (threatening) guitar, followed by these disturbing opening lines: “I have often said / That I would like to be dead / In shark’s mouth.” So we open with a grisly scene of death-desire and then get straight into the sexually suggestive, with Sweeney on backing vocals: “A woman swimming under / Her warm breath sending a thunder / On to parts south.” Is the woman being compared to a shark? This song seems to set the scene for the whole album—something about obsessive or dangerous desire, love gone wild. And it’s not easy to tell just where the line of irony cuts through the song. Is it here in the word “kind”? “Love is stripped and frayed / And duty is delayed / Until the next life / Someone has my mind / Holding it so kind / It is my wife.” And he tells us his home is the sea, in this beautiful quiet breathless falsetto; pause for effect, inhale … and release – “My home is the sea / My home is the sea / Look not for me.” We return briefly to that shark scene, the guitar and bass getting louder, a drum beat joining: “My home is the sea / Disaster flies upon me / And I scream.” The song shifts all over—variable volume dynamics included—inside and out this psychological relationship with the sea (which might be a metaphor for love), with his wife, with his role as a manly protector “My arms enfold thee … I’m a strong man,” and with his desire to be held—moody electric guitar solo increased to maximum volume: “I am under your spell / And you will have me I reckon / And the drowning this town / Is a drowning I welcome.” The question I keep asking—is this love of a healthy kind? This desire to be drowned in love or love-making leads to complete abandonment, music drops away, and Oldham sings thrice in top-notch falsetto, “I know nothing and I’m overjoyed.” Another rise, like the swelling, cresting and troughing of waves, the sea. The last three lines close the circle: Man in the sea/sea in the man: “And with the sea air in my lungs / I am home,” followed by Sue Schofield adding a final “you are home.” The music continues, drifting quietly, floating, bass and guitar, and you have to love those final curly arpeggios, just lovely. It’s great that the song doesn’t end after the vocals; we get some really nice riffs. What an amazing opener. Really powerful, evocative, scary, beautiful. There’s a live version on Is It The Sea? 2008.

Beast For Thee… out of his entire catalogue, this is my favourite Will Oldham song, an incredible piece of sublime beauty; a quick endless guitar arpeggio, with a slower guitar part picking out a sort of ‘bass line’. It’s another ‘love’ song, an offer of love, still closely aligned somehow with “My Home Is The Sea” in that the narrator is willing to go what might be too far in the name of love – to reduce himself to a beast. The Oldham-narrator proffers himself to his loved one using the metaphor of himself as a donkey who “will toil for years and years / Give you muscle tone and tears / Overcome and flay all fears / Leaving me, a beast for thee.” But before we get that far into the song, he begins by asking, in sad disappointed tones: “Why aren’t you kind to me?” and telling her, “You could so easily / Take me in your arms and see / A donkey, a beast for thee.” But everything thereafter is presupposed on a conditional: “If you had half a mind / Leave worldly things behind / Devote to being kind / You to me, a beast for thee.” This is where the organ lines starts up, briefly, faintly, but it’s that one extra ingredient that makes the melody so beautiful. The image of course is pushed over into irony. She’s not kind, she’s cruel and he’s not about to become anyone’s beast. But if she was able to be kind, he outlines the amazing sex life they’d have together, in near-falsetto: “At home on Wednesday morn / Astride my horny horn / You’ll be in glory born / And I will be a beast for thee.” I mean, what woman could resist such an offer? He would be her beast, “happily,” “quietly,” “endlessly.” I love the organ melody here and acoustic guitar at the very end. The song’s strength resides partly in this ambiguity—does he really want to be her beast, or is he mocking love? Otherwise it’s that unworldly melancholy of the quiet melody that grips you in its power. A new version, though nowhere near as moving, appears on the Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy 10” EP. A live version appears on Summer In The Southeast, 2005.

What Are You?… the title suggests the answer to that question is a noun, and given the menagerie of beasts paraded through the album—shark, goat, ram, wolf, panther and seagull—you could easily imagine the noun-answer as a kind of animal. In fact the title only presents half the question: “What are you waiting for, if not for me? / What are you waiting for? It must be me.” Musically, it’s quite similar to “A Beast For Thee” – more electric guitar arpeggios, a delicate but rapid regular flurry of notes. The theme of gifts and giving, already established in the first song, (“God gave you life and thoughts”) and in the second song, (“Give you muscle tone and tears”) is starting to become apparent by song three, and which will culminate most dramatically in the final song, “I Gave You.” The Oldham-narrator seems to be forever giving, which pushes the theme about giving oneself over wholly and unconditionally further still, the idea of drowning inside someone (the sea) and having them drown inside you, but always with that edge of irony flagging away. On this song, which may be lead-sung by Sweeney (I think), it seems as though Sweeney takes up the female position. His timbre is higher than Oldham’s with a shimmery quality that lends their dual vocals a feminine finish. After that opening question, the ‘female’ narrator figures that what her man is waiting for, is to be taken “over my knee,” where she will spank him “mercilessly,” and this will bring freedom and adventure: “And I’ll have you and you’ll have me…” with this weirdly explicit wildly passionate image, “…on a bench with your twisted fingers in me / In the rain with my sundress torn off of me / Sliding down grassy slopes where we can be alone.” I love those words “off of me” – you can hear their southern accents here. The ‘she’ figure is animalistic. And Oldham who takes up the male character, replies, as per his role in this male/female dichotomy we have going in the song, “You say I am evil / You know that I’m stupid,” which leads to the final line, the giving thing; “Yet I give you all / The truth is I give you everything.” Once again, the relationship seems too one-sided, and borderline sado-masochistic. The duet-singing in this song is nothing short of amazing. Works for me.

Goat And Ram… musically and structurally, this song is all over the place. More haunted, like a submerged threatening. Again, the lovers are imaged as animals, and the theme of giving oneself over completely haunts the song: “I’m in love with you … And once you have given your body / And demanded I give mine / We can be, you and me / Without children in time.” That word “demanded” makes this love sound just plain wrong, which fits with the slow, thick menacing guitar notes, a low drum sound. This is all somehow mixed up with God too: “God in your body which is mine.” Perhaps once all the wild drowning and sex of the first three songs is over, this song is more like a cultish celebration of an engagement, a vow, a promise, except that it sounds forced: “Just like anything / Choice is neither yours or mine / To love with all that will be / Without children in time.” This “without children in time” line is repeated at the end of the first three verses. So it seems they don’t need kids. Once more, the complete consummation is announced: “I can give into you / Because I know that you are good / I can fall into you / Laying, loving you.” But then he asks, rising into sky-high falsetto tones, “Who are you honey love?” as if suddenly realizing he doesn’t know her at all. And then we get this strange Zen-like absorption in some kind of transcendence aided by heavy deep electric powerchords augmented with smashed cymbals and bass drum: “All is / All am / All is / Goat and ram / All is / All am / All is.” It’s sung like a round, voices crossing over, merging and repeating. Back to quiet guitar. Tightly drawing each other in again: “Forever we watch things die / You hold me close and so do I hold you,” followed by an announcement of love and sudden loud heavy chords, singing about walking away and rocks and “I’m in love / And there’s music playing / A whole new love is fully saying / Though fire burns / And wool is woven / A hand may strike but still there is loving.” Crikey. And the guitars start wailing in weird fiery tones, that chord thrashes and the drums pound. It’s wildly intense.

Lift Us Up… and so this is the song where things get really weird, or the album’s trajectory gets twisted right around, where things start going wrong, or where Oldham begins to announce the scheme of his muse, the idea that everything’s not what it seems, that everything preceding this song has been part of an elaborate scheme, or a false dream. He sings at the beginning to a quiet, friendly guitar melody, “Lean into me darling /… I’m an awesome dreamer / In the mirrored light of star-far galaxy.” Why “mirrored” light? Is he reflecting something of her nature back? The chorus, more melodic here: “Oh and I lift us up, lift us up, lift us up.” True, but something’s terribly amiss: “People don’t you wonder,” he asks, “how the lord has brought you under / And demons lied I’m dreaming / To the nakedness I’m scheming.” What’s that all about? Is he breaking the frame, addressing the audience?—are we the “people”? What’s the dream/scheme? This leads back to the chorus, and to the admission that he’s lifting us up “above the lie lie.” Increasing tension, “ahh” harmonizing. It’s not just a “lie” – it’s a “lie lie” – a double lie – he’s hereafter pretending to be so in love that he’ll forsake everything and anything for her. He’ll later pretend that he can’t understand why she starts backing away while he tries to give her everything. I’m getting ahead of myself here. None of the passionate love of the preceding songs was intended as true—of course he doesn’t want to die in a shark’s mouth. “The wonder of my life / And the creature form of Superwolf / Will meet you eye to eye.” Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is the wolf, but this is more than mere wolf, this is superwolf – a meaner and crueler version of the wolf. “And when I wrap around you / Ain’t it wonderful I found you / And God in all his stature / In his nakedness deserved.” This ‘wrapping himself around you’ is a hug that’s going to be too tight—that she’ll have to accept both sides of him, man and animal, if she’s want him completely. This song, because of its chorus, has a strong melody to be heard among Sweeney’s amazing guitar tones and textures.

Rudy Foolish… this is where the mocking side of him starts to take over. We have another arpeggio melody. Both musicians sing about “a foolish day is a foolish day / In a beautiful way” and “she’s a panther girl trying to steal my world away.” What’s a panther girl? – feline, sexy, dangerous, deadly, femme fatale? “I’m sorry when you’re ill and under the bed / And I know that you will never be dead / Never be dead.” Two voices in the mix, sweetly weird, singing about a “rudy day” though I’m not sure what that means. In any case, if she’s a panther girl trying to steal his world away, I’m assuming that’s not quite what he wants. She’ll never be dead either. What’s that about? The music is spiky, a little grungy, a few light touches on the cymbal, guitar notes ringing out and piercing the vibe with a moody kind of trance-effect.

Bed Is For Sleeping… let me recap where I’m going with this in loose terms. Oldham’s narrator fell in love with a woman, a voracious appetite for sex, the two of them, passionate, excess, she wanted him to give up everything for her, but he couldn’t, only he pretended he could, but he wasn’t serious, but she wouldn’t let up, so he gave her superwolf, a beastly version of himself so that she would no longer want him, and then he turned the tables on her. Side Two of the album takes a turn towards feigned indignation, what I referred to as a ‘mocking tone.’ He pretends throughout the next five songs that he can’t understand what’s gone wrong (the “lie lie”). This song, with more electric arpeggios, is a kind of summary of the whole relationship thus far: “Bed is for sleeping / Love is for making / And you know, love, I am yours for the taking,” sings the narrator in smooth high but cool tones, despite the very pretty melody. And then, “And you see, love, I am yours for the knowing,” and a bit later, “Night is for dreaming / … I will dream with you the night of our wedding.” But “you have a splinter,” which suggests the splinter is him, and it gets worse: “Tears are for falling / And smiles are for breaking / Houses for burning and kisses for faking.” So, it’s all burning down, it’s all been faked. And then he asks, in what can only be interpreted as mocking tones; “And where are you going? / And why are you leaving? / Left on a walkway to swallow my grieving.” Sweeney joins him, singing these lines from the background like a forward echo. It seems kind of cruel and twisted, especially when he starts “ooohing” in a kind of wolf-howling-at-the-moon tone. And that’s why this album is called “Super-wolf” and not merely “Wolf” – because this is a grotesque exhibition of the beastly side of the Bonnie personality that we first heard about on the I See A Darkness album, especially on that album’s quietly beautiful-but-scary “Song For The New Breed.” There’s a live version of this song on Is It The Sea?

Only Someone Running… rubbed acoustic guitar. Two vocalists together, light voices—the lyrics open thus: “Only someone running would run right into me / Unless that someone was free like me.” This concept of freedom has always been important to Oldham’s narrators. Back to Oldham alone: of course, not only are “there…things I will not do,” but, he adds with a sly nod and a wink, “I will even be mean and cruel / And I will not stay with you / Unless you give me all of yourself.” He reminisces back to the time they were just friends, back “when I was a sandy blue / And friendship dwelled in western true,” but that was “back before you gave a view,” back before they decided to “make a future dream be ours” where he could “bathe in you” when she was the sea. And here’s Oldham as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy now in Superwolf guise and free as a seagull with a very catchy chorus: “And I sing evil, I sing good / I sing as a seagull should / And if you melted then I would / Melt myself all into you.” And he asks her, or himself, as he often asks of the women in his songs, especially those on Master And Everyone, “Can you love the one that God does?” The one that God loves means the true one, the whole persona: “Can you love the lily of the field? / Can you tend the soil inside of her / Till all has been revealed?” We get some whistling, while the song is performed entirely on acoustic guitar. We repeat that last verse, with Sweeney echoing Oldham’s lines.

Death In The Sea… for this short, almost hidden song—hidden in that it’s a minor piece placed between the melodic “Only Someone Running” and the epic meditation “Blood Embrace”—the speaker revisits the theme of dying in the sea from “My Home Is The Sea,” only this time the song is flat and passionless and the poetry too is more direct and simple: “The ocean is blue,” he says dully over a trickling guitar part, “I know it’s blue,” he adds, as if he’s never actually seen the ocean. “Someday I must die / It ain’t for me to know why / And I want to die in the sea.” He’ll “let go now” presumably of the woman, telling us, “it’s symbol and howl,” which suggests the poetic figurations and animal metaphors of the past few songs—the howl of a wolf: “Got to put this end to me,” he acknowledges. The melody is falling, dying, but with some lovely “oooh” harmonies from Sweeney and Oldham. But “there’s a hole in the sky / Through which I must fly / To get to my grave in the sea.” A minor roof-beam in the album’s architecture.

Blood Embrace… the music of this epic eight minute song is just one or two electric guitar arpeggios that trickle down in an endless melancholy repetition ending with a deep low bass hum over which Oldham poses a series of questions to himself about what course of action to take. “Themes of circumstantial infidelity” says Oldham of this song, “and how heartbreaking that is, when the intention is not there, on anybody’s part, to be hurtful, and still it’s so destructive.” It takes the form of a kind of trance or meditation on the central question of this album—what does he really want? He wants her, but he doesn’t want to consume or be consumed by her. And now he’s got to make some kind of decision, because there’s another bloke on the scene. Once again it’s not easy to tell whether the indecision is meant as an ironic lament: “Oh God, would I give her up to him / If she told me he was better / And that I didn’t have the chance / That he did to impress her?” he asks. “Does she test me, does she know / That I would sooner turn and go / And find another / If that’s what she’d have me do?” But this test—this other man that she’s threatening him with—he’s certain he would not fight “with hands or words / Another man, no that’s absurd.” Except, he’s not sure: “Or would I? And would victory betray me?” he asks, which is to suggest that he might try to win the fight but have no interest in winning the girl. He wants to know in high squeaky voice, “Is that what she’s waiting on? A pounding down one standing man?” And so if this is a fight test, and if he wins, would he then turn “to kiss her in a blood embrace”? It’s masculine-animalistic stuff. It links up to the album cover. Meanwhile that meandering falling guitar melody continues like a mantra, and starts to make the listener dream, drift off deep into the song. He continues, “Oh would I give her up at all / Because I know it could not be better / To live without what she provides / When we’re alone and I undress her.” He now has doubt in his mind, panicky—does he have the courage to leave or lose her? Music drops to just low humming bass notes. At this point, a sample of dialogue from a 1977 movie called Rolling Thunder (Vietnam veteran revenge flick) is stitched into the song. It’s a dialogue between a woman and her husband who has only just returned from the war (I guess) and who she’d given up for dead, telling him that she’s been with another man, and he, in melancholy mood, sitting in the dark, replies, “I’ll work this all out.” “What are you gonna do?” she asks. “I’m just gonna sit here,” he replies. Oldham sings the chorus section once more: “Is that what she’s waiting on / A pounding down one standing man? / To kiss her in a blood embrace / Victory.” It’s dark and more than a little menacing.

I Gave You… I interpret this song, released as a 7” single, and thus with quite a strong melody, as a kind of mocking gesture, which explains what I’ve been describing above: “I gave you a child [himself], and you didn’t want it / That’s the most that I have to give / I gave you a house, and you didn’t haunt it / Now where am I supposed to live?” And the superwolf line: “I gave you a nightmare and you didn’t chase it.” But note the change from “I gave” to “I’d give” in the next part. Here he sings of a would-be broken heart, still mocking: “I’d give you a dream, and you’d only wake from it … I’d give you a treasure, and you’d only take from it / Look at the hole where jewelry had been.” So far, it’s the same kind of textural electric guitar used on most of the album, but the notes get thicker and grungier before merging with the sad melody of a groaning organ. And he asks her, knowing full well the answer, “Baby, oh baby, why must you escape from it / This love that we once called a friend?” He alludes to the sex: “I gave you my body and you had plenty.” And the album ends on this rather pretty but melancholy note, which resolves the whole album because there’s a definite note of regret in his voice: “Now I’m standing empty, helpless and bare / Without a morsel left of me to give / And you, you had vanished into the air / The air in which I must live.” That whine returns, the guitar rings out, spiky, mixing with organ-tone. It’s one of the best songs here. And so all that giving over resulted in empty air.

It’s impossible and probably not advisable of course to try to force-fit an entire album into a perfectly formed theory of interpretation, and I can see my attempt is full of holes, unanswered questions and anomalies, but I think it does provide a way of seeing the conflicts and betrayals that occur across the course of the album at a macro level, even if the songs do exist in their own right as completely independent entities. That the album has fascinated me so much though, and left me with the impressions I’ve tried to put across, confirms in my mind that Superwolf was Oldham’s second masterpiece in only six years. It’s a crime that the album hardly appears on any net-journal “best of the decade” lists. I think it’s a beautifully formed artistic enigma. This LP would be followed up in the same year with the first live BPB effort, Summer In The Southeast.

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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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