Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Letting Go, 2006

Letting Go frontI have a sorry history with this album. I bought it in the year of release and despite being aware of all the great reviews, I never seemed to understand what people were raving about. I wasn’t really listening, and each year I’d pull it out, try again, and feel underwhelmed, until one day, about four years later, it finally hit me in one big moment of glory—this album is incredible. Something about Dawn McCarthy’s ‘icy’ sounding vocal (which, along with the cover and the knowledge that the album was recorded in Iceland, gave me the wrong idea that the album was about coldness) never caught in my ear, until I finally started listening more closely and more regularly. Hearing the interplay between McCarthy and Oldham’s voices – these two are just perfect together. One of my favourite male/female vocal combinations ever. I guess I would rate this as my third favourite Bonnie album. I’m looking forward to these two collaborating again on their collection of Everly Brothers covers being released in early 2013.

So, The Letting Go seems to be an album based around a theme of love, and more specifically, learning how to really handle being in love, while combating that ever present desire to be free – you know, the classic conundrum, the one that gets in under your skin and can half-kill someone like Ian Curtis. While the album title refers to an Emily Dickinson poem, with the ambiguous meaning of either (a) letting go of life (negative) or (b) letting go of the numbness that results from a great pain in order to move forward (positive), on this album it could also refer to letting go of old loves, or letting go of adulterous desires in order to accept love.

Letting go labelLove Comes To Me… is a poetic number whose main refrain is the title, “Love comes to me.” It opens with mournful/hopeful violins and cellos before a soft guitar strum takes over and Oldham’s voice enters. The singer lists a number of situations when love comes, such as becoming aware of the high number of dead flying through the sky (as you do), or when a lover’s head is “knocked back” and mouth “laying ope,” or when you’re dying of fever and your prayers go unanswered, then, once again, love comes to the singer, and when it comes, it comes to his hands, heart and lips. What could this mean? Hm, so when you’re aware of death, or a partner’s suffering, or during sex, then you go all gooey and sentimental and realize you are able to love someone after all? Perhaps. And Oldham gets all breathy and excited with his alliteration of ‘h’ sounds: “O, sugar won’t you be my only / I’m a hard-hearted honey-pot hungry shepherd / And I’m longing to be born for you, that’s her.” That line is the highlight of the whole song, with both voices uttering it in rising-falling tones. Something of an odd but quietly beautiful love song. Throughout you hear the high tones of minimalist McCarthy adding faint touches to the chorus and other low wails here and there, which seem to enhance the melody tenfold. It’s a quiet delicate song nonetheless, with a touch of electric guitar after the chorus, a low woodblock type knocking-on beat, and strings shifting hither and thither in the wind of the love that comes. It’s a great opening track, understated, subtle, resigned, gracious and grateful for this love that comes. Very pretty. “Love Comes To Me” also appears on Is It The Sea? 2008.

Strange Form Of Life… ups the emotional ante somewhat after that soft opening song with some gorgeous duetting between McCarthy and Oldham, although a quick scan of the lyrics reveals a rather curious set of circumstances which constitute “a strange form of life.”  These include such actions as “kicking through windows, rolling on yards / Heading on loved ones, triggering odds.” Very curious indeed. Besides being “a strange one,” the singer(s) describe “a hard one” which is something about the act of getting together and “the softest lips ever” which the singer’s been waiting twenty-five years to kiss, not once but “twice.” But once the lovers have found each other in a dark room, they can forget about the strange, the hard and the soft, says the singer. Yup, so it’s anyone’s guess exactly what’s going on here, but the vague clues point towards a pairing of some kind, lovers who’d do anything to ultimately be together, despite the odds, and that’s possibly a little strange, yet, not, because we do do things like that, once the heart is set in motion. We have the same wooden beat (delicate rimshots?) with a more insistent guitar strum, and once again, the notion of wind seems to blow through the song as evidenced by McCarthy’s voice flying along behind Oldham’s. After the second verse, it all builds briefly before settling back into that windy atmosphere which rises and falls, lulls and then stirs up again. Brilliant stuff. It’s a clever arrangement of features—between guitar, strings, beat, voices and wonderful melody on electric guitar which jolt the song down into itself and create a forward movement. Exciting. Love it. This was also released as a 12” single while a live version appears on the B-side of 2007 tour-only single, Bonny 2007.

Wai… is another song about love, this time referencing “Careless Love” from Ease Down The Road in its main refrain: “O love, O love, O careless love / I only want to lay with you / My love, my love, my careful love, I’ve found the hard way love is true.” Just guitar and bass at first, and a lone Oldham close-miked vocal. McCarthy soon joins. Her voice can be as deep or as high as she cares to send it. The melody is more subtle here—less drama.  The phrase “hard way” also connects straight back to “Strange Form Of Life.” Once again, a poetically obscure song with a dark side that seems to bring out the inner monster for close inspection, although it’s a “croco” this time, rather than a wolf. But it’s love that conquers. Even though it’s hard or difficult, love can round out against “bile,” against “heartless fun,” against numbness and against “fearful hate.” So there’s all this negative stuff in the heart, the internal struggle with desire of a “creature born in listlessness,” which might normally end in death if it wasn’t for love’s ability to save: “I’ve found the hard way love is true.” Why is the song called “Wai” which means ‘water’ in Hawaiian (and Maori, for that matter)? That’s not so evident here. There’s more strings at one point, some xylophone, other gravelly grumbly sounds; soft dynamic shifts between verse and chorus, where things momentarily speed up. According to Oldham, “Wai” was originally going to be the name of the album but he ditched it less people mispronounced it. There was a demos version of this album released on CD only called Wai Songs.

Cursed Sleep… is a kind of bad dream set to a beautiful melody. The fellow is sleeping in his bed, sweetly, and dreaming of the woman who is sleeping beside him. In his dream she sings “sweetly” too, only the sweetness is too much and bad stuff starts to happen, like his legs get “cut” and a hunger develops. Like in all the best bad dreams, his legs fail him, while the dream lover holds him tightly, not letting go. And when he wakes, she’s still holding him; “and holds my love against its will.” And so it goes on, this “cursed love, never ending.” Meanwhile she goes on sleeping, singing an epic song which “tells of how / She and I are living now.” Perhaps it’s a song chronicling the struggles of commitment. You can hear a little of that in the harder dynamic arrangement between loud string sections and Oldham’s vocal parts, punctuated by stabs or runs on the electric guitar. Not so much of McCarthy’s voice here, but the melody has a powerful surge and fade, and we get some grungier guitar in here too, before that quite wondrous violin and cello build. Very dramatic and pretty at the same time, while evoking a slightly nightmarish feel. Like you can imagine the Bonnie narrator in his sleep, his body rising and falling with the freakiness of his dream. In the second half McCarthy’s siren-like tone starts wailing “cursed eyes” behind Oldham’s voice, which brings great thrill and turmoil at once. In the denouement, Oldham even goes into a brief “dee-dee” falsetto, while McCarthy intones “cursed eyes” over a couple more times. Another great track. This was also released on 12” single and appears on Is It The Sea? 2008.

No Bad News… seems to be a break-up song except that in the end there’s no break-up. The narrator starts off in so much trouble that he asks, “Can you get anymore?” After rhyming bubble with trouble and thereby evoking a Macbethan witchy spell perhaps, a lover arrives at the door, or at least “someone lovely, and she’s bringing bad news.” McCarthy joins with a very high pitch on certain lines, and it works so well. It’s like Oldham’s delicate soft voice becomes gilded by McCarthy’s feminine tones. The chorus brings some kind of wisdom that when something bad happens it becomes contagious and turns people bad and half of their hearts “into something hard and dark.” There’s one curious verse, played with a military snare, that offers three metaphors for these kind of dark partnerships: “hammers and nails,” “leaves and winds,” and “enemies and friends” – all things where one bangs, tears down or destroys the other, the same way this lovely woman is bringing bad news. The narrator offers a means of transcending bad news and the woman, who seems to be having some epileptic episode – as in, “She clenches and she cries and she lays on the stairs / Pounding on the earth and yanking at her hairs,” seems to be trying to exorcise the bad news-badness out of her: later she’s shaking “her face so fiercely that all her features go / She lays like a monkey unclothed in the snow,” while her voice decays. “I will never again deliver bad news,” she says. Generally, there’s a complicated acoustic guitar part playing over the snare drum, whining strings, a deeply humming bass, a strong minor-chord melody. Nice rhythmic pace here too. The song reminds me of the sound of Love’s Forever Changes up to this point, before they suddenly tack on this quite brilliant addendum of whistling, whining flute sounds, and a chorus of Dawn McCarthys repeating the final refrain with Oldham: “Hey, hey little bird / Thank you for not letting go of me when I let go of you.” Really beautiful song.

Cold & Wet… was issued on 12” single to promote this album. It’s a really pretty little blues number (sans McCarthy’s voice) all about water’s excellent powers of conductivity, especially for cooling things down: “When things become too warm make them a little wet.”  Beyond that the lyrics are extremely oblique; bare snippets of in-between ideas detailing “toothless men” and ladies with “ghostly pouts.” I’m not quite sure why Oldham’s narrator advises to “douse them” or “cause the warm to drown.” What I do love about this song is the matter-of-fact way Oldham sings it, as though what he’s saying is a series of instructions mixed with a cautionary tale that ends, “We wetted warmth and killed it and in the water hid.” There’s a smile on his face. You can hear it in the quick casual way he sings it. Even the sound of this song wins my love. A warm lightly bouncing rhythmic strummed guitar part, slightly blurred, woody bass sound, with light ‘blues’ scratches on slid strings. A quick blink and you’ll miss it song with a very light (as in semi-humorous) tone as if to offset the drama of the previous five songs. This song was recorded live for the Is It The Sea? album in 2008.

photoBig Friday… follows on neatly from “Cold And Wet,” with another brief catchy ditty sung in a winsome way, but with a gorgeous acoustic guitar arpeggio for a melody. It’s a kind of love song, or homage to a woman who saves the narrator from melting, from stinging, from being holed up, braking in snow and from “overspilling my runneth cup.” Perhaps this is personal, Oldham’s “Shelter From The Storm,” albeit an indie low-key version. Instead of a storm, it’s a tidal wave that destroys their house, “in splinters,” but that couldn’t destroy their love: “You snuggled to me on the ground in the winter / And your breath smelled like honey in the frosty air wake.” Whatever happened on a certain Friday in Oldham’s life, it was a big enough event for him to feel grateful to a certain loved one to write this song. I like these lines, and the music all rises to support the second verse: “You wore no shows and ate like a leopard / And slept with your legs apart every night.” McCarthy joins for the chorus where Oldham expresses his gratitude: “And if I had to live / This is what it should be / To have such a woman with me.” I love this song, especially the neat little ‘folktronica’ interlude after the third verse. This is the only song where McCarthy’s voice doesn’t really seem necessary.

Lay And Love… was released on 12” single in 2007. It’s yet another love song sort of split down the middle. The narrator loves a certain second person object, “you” because “you’re magnificent,” “you fight evil,” “your every act is spectacular,” “you are generous,” “you make sunshine and glory too” etc. So far so good, but alas she’s also terrified, full of mistrust and hiding something hurtful. All of these things—the bad stuff too, makes our Bonnie narrator “lay here and love you.” He often seems drawn to women who can redeem him. It might be a mistake to assume this particular Bonnie narrator is the same fellow as the narrators of past albums and songs but his style of lyricism is quite consistent. The fact she can redeem him, or at least love him back is wonderful for someone “filled with violet, red and blue,” which to my way of seeing doesn’t exactly represent a peaceful combination of colours. So why is she terrified? Of him leaving? Of what’s inside of him? That she’s a warrior able to fight/redeem those dark parts of him is what he finds worth loving. The music? A really neat, muffled, very strange rhythm section—sounds like someone dragging something across the roof. Both singers sing in unison for the whole song, meanwhile a lovely guitar melody hums along with that drowsy beat. It is drowsy kind of music, hence the “lay and love” lying down theme I guess. It all sort of half-blurs together. Very up-to-date kind of beat. It’s a sad song but not without hope obviously, given the lyrical theme. The two voices work some absolute magic together on the final verse. A favourite. It also appeared on Funtown Comedown in 2009.

The Seedling… appears in demo form, just Oldham and electric guitar as a B-side to the “Strange Form Of Life” 12” single. This one is by far the most ominous sounding. A pounding beat, with a repeating guitar figure that suggests something dark is approaching. We get several dramatic stabs of violins before this wild build with McCarthy’s high-tension voice “lah-lahing” in the background. All hell brakes loose for the chorus, see-sawing cellos which turn into violins. This comes close to the kind of freaky vibe we heard on “Madeleine Mary.” Each time the verse ends and builds into the chorus, the volume goes up and McCarthy adds something incredible with her instrumental voice. This is such a cool song. Kind of scary. Lyrics in this song seem to connect back faintly to “No Bad News.” In that song we saw a woman lying, “like a monkey unclothed in the snow.” In “The Seedling” the narrator sings, “My full-sized child is fully unclothed,” and “when it is cold I shelter her in / The wazimy warmth of the monkey skin.” The birdies think this narrator has no children, as per the chorus, but what those birdies don’t know is that he’s made a seedling grow in his hidden life, and it’s hard to know how to interpret that. Is he singing about an illegitimate child? The one we first heard about on “Forest Time”? Or is he talking about an inner child? Once again, there’s a creeping darkness in this song. Firstly, the narrator has red fur. His child smiles “unluckily” at him. Later there’s a “black hand gripping our kid’s wrist,” then some weird stuff about lanterns, arrows and little monk fish. The lyrics die away as we get the chorus repeated several times with great sweeping screeching violins: “Birdies say I got no children / Birdies never know / In my secret life I made a seedling grow.” Why so dramatic? He seems pretty freaked out about this seedling growing in his secret life, as though it’s going to destroy him. Some pretty cool “ah ah ahing” at the end. Wonderful.

Then The Letting Go… in the book Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Oldham discusses a series of coincidences surrounding the title of this song, which comes from the last line of the Emily Dickinson poem, “After great pain a formal feeling comes…” There was a book by Guy Waterman called Good Morning Midnight about a man who loses two sons in the snow, about dying of the cold, and the process goes like this: “First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.” There’s a lot of snow on this album, which might have something to do with it being recorded in Iceland, or maybe the snow in the lyrics led somehow, no matter how indirectly, to choosing a recording studio in Iceland. The cover art has nothing to do with Iceland, by the way. Quite the opposite—it’s a scene from Makapu’u in Hawaii. So in this song we have a narrative. Something about kids (who might be lovers) running off in the snow together. There’s something slightly femme fatale about this song—the female voice invites the male narrator to go with him, eat berries, get drawn deeper into the forest, away from adults, home, from the search parties, where they’ll get married, in the snow. The boy never went though. He only remembers her going home from his place after playing together when they were children, and presumably she got lost and never made it home. This trauma means that nowadays, as a parent, the narrator is very careful about letting his own children go out in the snow. The lover from childhood, seems to return in the present as a memory or a ghost, lays her head on his feet, cries into his lap and this causes him much pain: “In the quiet of the day, well, I laid her low / And used her skin as my skin to go out in the snow.” It seems pretty clear that we’re starting to see repeating ideas on this album, about snow, children, and something about nakedness and wearing skins as clothing. Musically the song is a call and response: Oldham sings a line, McCarthy answers him. He’s telling the tale from the present about the past. She’s acting out the female voice from the past calling him, like a siren, to his romantic doom. It’s such a sad sounding song but so very effective with the mix of voices, McCarthy’s so high and far away, so very distant, echoes of the past. Instrumentation is mostly just a low bass, plucked and strummed guitar, and a faint organ whine at various points. One neat trick is how McCarthy uses her voice for sound effects to sound at one point like “the harsh winter wind” and later to sound like the narrator slipping into a dream. Really beautiful. Lovely dreamy effective melody. Ends on the line, “And used her skin as my skin to go out in the snow.”

God’s Small Song… appears as the B-side to the “Cursed Sleep” 12” single in the exact same form we hear it here. It’s a peculiar song, but one filled with some neat ideas about having “tended to God’s small song / And to Love’s small song,” the narrator may now fall asleep and “go / Into all of the places that you love.” The act of sleeping and dreaming will enable him to “amend some of the things / That some actions bring.” And the song sort of just drifts off from there into a dream with a verse of surreal imagery: “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.” Music here is more like found sounds, ambient, really low humming bass, fiddly distant guitar sounds, creaky clatters, faint, a harsh whistle-whine, all groaning in slowly and fading out again after the vocal lines. Oldham’s voice I should mention is so confident and perfect on this album. He’s fully formed here, an able-voiced improviser. The weird distortions on what I presume is McCarthy’s voice are also wonderful, like a dreamy weird miaowing type sound. Things in the air, stalactites of ice, Icelandic sprites, aurorae, falling leaves, will-o-wisps, radio waves, brief sparkles from distant satellites, a cold cold night sky with blue twinkling stars, violin wavers. Great stuff.

I Called You Back… is perhaps one of the most straightforward love songs Oldham’s ever written. It’s quietly beautiful, a slow nostalgic melody with touching lyrics: “Love found us easily / And if that’s all we have you will find we need nothing more.” The theme of returning over and over again to the one you love is evident in the chorus: “And I called you back to a place beside me.” I like this line: “Every time we kiss / We find ourselves in love again.” The lovebird singers observe “the older that we get / We know that nothing else for us is possible.” And the ultimate dedication? “When I was quiet / Well, I heard your voice in everything.” Again and again, they return to a place beside each other. The music is less experimental than what’s been—just a regular 4/4 beat, washes of strummed guitar, and a low mournful Oldham vocal, a touch sleepy, with muted piano chords. McCarthy’s voice joins on the chorus to great effect, to strengthen that sense of lovers. There are a few concrete sounds in the background actually; like a backdrop. Towards the end we have muted brass tones, bent guitar notes. Creative stuff. This is fantastic. Those occasional high notes on the piano. The understated, almost-minimalist aesthetic crafts this natural feel that evokes some imagined frozen landscape like the song before it. The voices sing the chorus line thrice at the end, along with weird warped effects, shimmering strings, out of sync singing. Entrancing stuff.

letting go backOldham says an interesting thing in his interview book, Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He says that we have to learn for ourselves the idea that a careless love (ie. cheating) is no love at all. This is of course a very cultural response to the modern idea that romantic love by its very definition can only ever be a monogamous thing. Possibly true. Alas the LP version leaves off another great song only heard on the CD version called “Ebb Tide.” What a great album this is. I can’t wait to hear the new album released in early 2013 with McCarthy and Oldham covering Everly Brothers songs. Next up in 2007 is a mini-album of covers, another favourite of mine, Ask Forgiveness.

Inner slip

Inner slip

Record sleeve art

Record sleeve art

Record sleeve art

Record sleeve art

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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