Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Cursed Sleep 12″, 2006

This is the first single released in advance of The Letting Go, one of Oldham’s most consistently melodic albums, although again, he has a collaborator, Dawn McCarthy, and they work some absolute magic together. The songs on this EP are just plain Freudian, straight from the dark recesses of the mind. Two of them are about dreams, while one is about our old favourite, the wolf. Oldham mines his unconscious here for material and he brings it alarmingly well, although what the songs actually mean, who’s to know. Tracks one and three are directly off the album, so we really only have one song here exclusive to this release, which is track two. But it’s a beauty, quite unlike anything we’ve heard from Oldham before or since, which is a pity, because I’d love to hear a whole album in the style of “The Signifying Wolf.” This is a one-sided record.

Cursed Sleep… has a rich warm acoustic guitar sound, a deep bass thump, and opens with a heightened dramatic violin flourish. In “Cursed Sleep,” which is like some kind of succubus myth, Oldham, in fragile sad tones sings of sleeping sweetly with “she” who “breathed lightly right next to me,” and he dreams of her “inside of me.” Here he’s joined by Dawn McCarthy. So far so good, but alas, like any dream worth its fluff, good things turn bad at the drop of a hat. In his dream she sings a melody so “sweetly” that the narrator wants to sing it too, but instead becomes “enslaved by her sweet wonder” which has an undesired effect: “It cut my legs and fingered hunger.” In between lines, we get short guitar interjections. As she sings his name, he becomes engulfed inside of her, feels his legs fail (true to form for any good dream), falls into her arms and “trembled electric.” We get an instrumental break, a dramatic string section, some lovely violin and guitar interplay. Really a very pretty melody, with that haunted quality that Oldham does so well. Seems he’s now under her spell (Oldham sang of being under a lover’s spell in “My Home Is The Sea” on Superwolf too) because even when he wakes she “holds my love against its will” having cast a spell over him “with her palms extended” such that he’s caught in an infinite trap of cursed love, which at the literal level apparently means he can never sleep again, because both “cursed eyes” and “cursed arms” are never closing. McCarthy’s voice sings and soars and blends with the violin which bring some fantastic drama to the ‘chorus’ section. He’s forced to go on loving and holding on inside her dream, “while she sleeps her song unfolding / Epic song it tells of how / She and I are living now,” and the instrumentation builds into drama with some brief but effective “dee dee dee” falsetto notes from Oldham. The song has the same kind of hysterical hair-raising quality as “Madeleine Mary” from I See A Darkness, especially with McCarthy’s contribution, her voice especially, with its sharp-edged ‘cold’ soprano quality rising on those words “cursed love.” Brilliant stuff.

The Signifying Wolf… (c/w The Signifying Monkey of African-American folklore) couldn’t be more different. It has a grungy swamp vibe, really low and cultish sounding with lots of creepy background female vocals and a disturbing submerged groaning whining sound, thumpity animal-hide drumming, much in the vein of Dr. John’s Gris-Gris style. This is really cool. I wish he’d make a whole album of this kind of music. It sounds like some kind of night fire ritual drum circle with all sorts of animal-freak types dancing around drugged out of their minds, howling like wolves, that low tribal drum beat, all sorts of other disturbed groany distorted sounds. “Can you hold, can you hold…your breath?” asks Oldham and the female singers gasp, “hah.” It reminds me quite a lot of the Akron/Family’s brilliantly creepy “Lake Song/New Ceremonial Music For Moms” from their 2007 album Love Is Simple. Lyrically though, the song harks back once more to that sea theme from Superwolf. Here Oldham sings of himself as “the signifying wolf” suggesting that his identification with said carnivorous mammal, with its figurative and informal meaning of ‘a man who habitually seduces women’ and other associated connotations of ferociousness, rapaciousness and voraciousness, intentionally symbolizes his subconscious desires. It seems to me however, a little overly prosaic to use a word like ‘signifying’ though, and then to sing lines like “Do you like / Do you like / Do you like my sealskin trousers … Follow me…” — I mean I think we’ve got the message  by now—the wolf thing, that is. Whoever he’s appealing to in this song, the Oldham-narrator would have her follow him to the sea because “nothing makes me happier / Than to see you swim too.” Then, he informs us, “I’m the signifying wolf” and “I’m the aquatic ape” with that good old post-modern blank irony we first encountered on the early Palace material. “Hear me go,” says Oldham, before launching into wolf howls. Yes, this is Oldham’s “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya,” only weirder and more disturbing, with its trashcan Waitsian aesthetic, backwards guitars and background grunting and yelping.

God’s Small Song… is also a little weird, in a more palatable way. It opens softly, an acoustic guitar, three notes, a wobble, a hum, some drumsticks being picked up, then a weird eerie vocal drifting across the song, a scene of hills, fog over water, a lake, winter, an ambient feel. Oldham’s vocal is tentative, almost spoken, soft, light, intimate, quiet, high. No actual music other than a guitar being used percussively, a triangle bell sound tingling or whining, and always that one single electronic whirring sound, like a vocal that’s been pitch-shifted to some higher tuning, sounds like a cat miaowing but ghostly. “God” is a frequent visitor in Oldham’s songs, which I tend to think is his way of waving a careless hand at the universe in order to absolve himself of responsibility, and rightly so. God is like, whatever, man – the thing to hold accountable when we realize our internal subjectivity is externally derived, or worse, doesn’t even exist. As I noted earlier, this is another song about sleep and dreams. Once Oldham has “tended to God’s small song / And to Love’s small song,” he can close his eyes and “sleep so long.” In his dreams he’ll “go / Into all of the places that you love” because dreams provide the places where he can “amend… some of the things / That some actions bring.” He finishes with this very curious and poetic verse which I’m loath to interpret other to acknowledge its surrealist dreamlike sense of vision: “In each eye there is an apple / Buried there before the eye / And out of sockets come the branches / And from the branches dangle I.” In the context of The Letting Go, this song works really well in terms of providing a counterpoint dynamic.

Strangely “God’s Small Song” is not available on the iTunes version of the album, though it does appear on the CD and LP. Once again, given that two of the three songs are album tracks, this is only worth owning/hearing for “The Signifying Wolf,” and as I said back up the top there, it would be great to hear Oldham do a whole album in that style. The next 12″ single, also in 2006 was “Cold And Wet.”

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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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