I’d had this on my ipod for a couple of years before I got round to playing my vinyl copy, and it was really only during a hiking trip through Switzerland in 2011 that I got fully absorbed in Ask Forgiveness, playing it every day, sometimes thrice a day, until I was so hooked I didn’t need to play it to hear it. I had brain-recorded every nuance of Oldham’s voice doing these great tunes in my head. Then I got home and began playing my vinyl copy up loud and it sounded great. I may have even overplayed it, because when I hear it just once now, I can’t seem to get it out of my head for a week. It’s so melodic and the lyrics all seem so poignant. He’s really chosen a fantastic set of songs and wrought out the most delicate nuances in their melodies with his wondrous voice and the great arrangements. The other two musicians here are Greg Weeks on electric guitar and Meg Baird on vocals. Gotta love that album cover. Even Oldham considers it grotesque.
I Came To Hear The Music… was written by Mickey Newbury, an artist who revolutionized country music in the 60s and 70s. ie. the kind of singer-songwriter Oldham was born to cover. This is from Newbury’s 1974 album I Came To Hear The Music. His version is just as soft and emotional as Oldham’s cover, although slower and a little sadder. I would even go as far as to say that Oldham shares with Newbury a certain high-soft timbre in his voice and singing style. I have to say, after hearing Newbury’s slightly rawer version, Oldham’s cover suddenly seems more ‘pop’. I’m glad he ditched the string arrangements though which get a bit sentimental on the original. “I Came To Hear The Music” is a song anyone who’s chosen to make music as a career could sing. It’s an ode to the wonder of music, and while “there’s so many things I don’t believe I understand,” like the onward march and arbitrary divisions of time for example, at least there’s music to help bring us down “a long, long road / From now to then.” So Oldham “came to hear the music” even though “God knows it brings me down,” then he “came to love the music” then he “came to be the music,” which is true in the sense that to me, and you, our favourite recording artists aren’t really people to us – they’re nothing more than music coming out of speakers. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy is music. And his version here is nothing short of beautiful, played on acoustic guitar, with Greg Weeks on electric trailing notes and trills behind Oldham wistful voice. When the chorus hits, Meg Baird’s faint vapour trail-soprano backs up Oldham’s vocal as the two soar briefly. It’s the deliriously rueful melody and Weeks’s elegiac electric notes that make this song so amazing.
I’ve Seen It All… was a collaborative effort by Bjork and Thom Yorke written for the 2000 released soundtrack of Dancer In The Dark. They sing it as a duet—a set of questions and answers which works quite well. Oldham plays both roles himself, which seems ironic given how often he has a female co-singer on his albums. The Bjork/Yorke version is all heightened drama, industrial-glitch rhythm, swooning strings and generally a bit too overcooked for my tastes. This is one of those songs that that once you’ve heard Oldham sing it enough times, he comes to own it. In fact this magical effect continues throughout this record, and many reviewers point out how Oldham comes to perform these songs so wonderfully that it’s difficult trying to imagine they weren’t actually written by him, because the lyrics seem to suit his style so well. They’re well chosen in that regard, unlike that awful The Brave And The Bold fiasco. So in “I’ve Seen It All,” whose main trick are these bent off-notes which gives the melody a curious, mysterious spooked vibe, the first narrator seems to be weary of the world, claiming he’s seen it all, there’s nothing left to see, and presumably nothing left to surprise him. He’s therefore tired and cynical. The other voice asks him questions about things he may not have seen, and he answers with amusingly snide or weary replies. For example, “You haven’t seen elephants, kings or Peru,” and he replies, “I’m happy to say I had better to do.” Or this great line – “What about China? Have you seen the great wall?” “All walls are great if the roof doesn’t fall.” There’s better to come. “You’ve never been to Niagara Falls?” “But I have seen water, it’s water, that’s all,” and “The Eiffel Tower and the Empire State?” “My pulse was as high on my very first date.” Oldham does a fantastic job of bringing out the melody, and by song-end, the questioner gives up, and allows the narrator to bear witness to his past and future and accept his place in life. Once again with both Baird and Weeks on backing vocals, the song is raised to something quite spectacular and dramatic. So much better than the original.
Am I Demon?… comes from Danzig’s debut album released in 1988. Theirs is a fairly likable heavy metal number with squiggly solos and an aggressive sound. Needless to say, Oldham sings it in his own soft way and draws attentions to the lyrics, although listening to Danzig sing it, I’m left wondering whether it might suit the heavy metal posturing better. The song links to “I’ve Seen It All” in the second line when Oldham sings, voice slightly hoarse and faded, “Hordes of faces, empty eyes / I see nothing new.” The lyrics of this song otherwise hark back to I See A Darkness-era Bonnie in that he wants to know whether he’s beast or human, or worse, demon: “Power seething, really reeling / Reaching out for you.” And what he comes to understand is this self-union concept that negates the division between self and consciousness: “Everything I need is me, everything I am.” Seems that Oldham was always a big fan of Danzig in his youth so it’s good to hear him pay homage to a lyric that clearly has meaning for him. The tune here is also one that seems to want to burst but restrains itself and complicates the emotion. Restraint. But as the song progresses, Oldham begins to soar, various bass notes and other whines and groans echo in the background, but just subtle enough to affect you on the subconscious level and give the song its quiet power. I fear I’m going to exhaust my quota of “beautifuls” in trying to describe this music.
My Life… Phil Ochs wrote this song. He’s already popped up in Oldham’s back catalogue—specifically referenced in a jokey fashion on the song “Gezundheit” released as a 7” single back in 1995. Phil Ochs’s version can be heard on his 1969 album Rehearsals For Retirement. It’s not bad, though it comes with syrupy strings and incredibly earnest vocal performance. I much prefer Oldham’s version. The lyrics are great—it’s all about the past, and has the narrator asking the tough questions—specifically about whose life ‘my life’ really belonged to. He considers childhood – “my life was once a joy to me … a toy to me … it was easy to survive.” As a teenager, life was both a flag which he waved, then a drag, and he began to rebel: “My life was not for sale.” He now sees that his past life, even as a musician “drifter” is both a myth and a death and he effectively rebirths himself as one in control of his own life, standing in his own place: “take your tap from my bone and leave my life alone.” Phil Ochs had a hard time of it, being something of bone-honest songwriter, which one presumes is why Oldham is such a fan. Here we have sweetly, mournfully plucked acoustic guitar, with other blurred wobbly organ tones in the background and Weeks singing in unison with Oldham on the chorus, while Baird uses her voice to paint brushstrokes of muted colours behind them. Then we get the “mmhm mmmm” part in the middle. The melody is sweet and sad, curling like smoke in your ears, and those twin males voices seem to drill right into your mind. Entrancing.
I’m Loving The Street… is the only Oldham original on this album, and it’s well placed after that Phil Ochs song, because it seems to be a song of joy about having found one’s feet and “loving the street.” It opens with the most positive words Oldham’s ever laid down in a song, “I’m feeling good” (croaky voice) although it quickly gets odd when he announces, “my heart is made of wood.” The chorus admits that “everybody loves something sometimes,” and for the Oldham-narrator, it’s the street, ya see? That’s because “the air is mine,” and both Jesus and Mohammed loved the street too, and “what baby does” has to be loved by Mamma, thus Oldham’s career as an artist-cum-streetman must be loved by mum too. And that’s good. When it’s all finished he just hopes for a golden cabin in the trees. And given the catchy melodicism of the song and the natural joie de vivre in Oldham’s voice, I can’t see any reason for finding much darkness in this song, although there are undercurrents. If he does get to that golden cabin, he wonders whether God will let him “snooze snooze snooze for eternity” as if to imply that to not exist in the world is where real bliss lies. The melody here is warm, immensely catchy, an optimistic breezy kind of tune and it floats. You can imagine a camera trailing those bees that “buzz buzz buzz” on a warm day at the opening of a feel good movie about summer break.
The Way I Am…is a composition by Sonny Throckmorton who wrote zillions of country songs for others to perform. Merle Haggard recorded this, a country artist who Oldham would cover again on his Haggard Harper Bonnie 7” in 2011. Haggard’s version appears on his 1980 album, The Way I Am. Haggard’s is slow and also saddled with a whole sugarshack’s worth of string-addled syrup. Strangely, this is also credited to the Mekons, another of Oldham’s favourite bands, although I couldn’t uncover any information about that version. “The Way I Am” is about accepting yourself for who you are even if you’re not sure where you come from and where you’re heading to. He sings of dissatisfaction: “Wish I was down on some blue bayou,” and “Wish I enjoyed what makes my living,” but accepts that life’s hard and so “I just dream, keep on being the way I am,” even if “the way I am / Don’t fit my shackles.” It’s a pretty melody with a whimsical vibe, the tossed head of a carefree troubadour who knows he’s gotta keep on keeping on if he’s to survive in this mean old world. He’s searching for his father, and doesn’t remember any folks from his past and admits to growing up lonely. Thus we might even go as far to say that the “way I am” is the way of a dedicated artist. But hey, he’s not “bragging or complaining,” he’s just talking to himself, “man to man.” Baird’s voice is more prominent here, singing along with most lyrics the way McCarthy does on The Letting Go. And again it works beautifully for the song’s soft, pensive dreamy melody. A kind of melancholy backporch blues type feel, country dude chewing his grass. Oldham pulls out a falsetto for “Yodel-eh-te-ho, ho-te” and finishes with an unfinished whistle.
Cycles… was a hit for Frank Sinatra (the definitive version many will tell you) and written by someone called, well…Gayle Caldwell, an American singer-songwriter and classically trained pianist. Frank’s version is a pleasant guitar and piano affair available on his 1968 album, Cycles. This song too is placed directly after the previous song proving there’s a thematic linear thread or arch running through the album, making it something of a concept. Baird on backing vocals again. In this song, the singer accepts that life’s gonna roll round in cycles like the seasons—after laughter comes tears and so on, but he’ll hold out anyway and “stay awhile / And see if some dreams come true.” This is yet another song sung to us from the singer/musician/artist who’s gonna grin and bear life: “But I’ll keep my head held high / Although I’m kind of tired,” and “I’ll keep on trying to sing / But please, don’t ask me how.” The lyrics all seems kind of mundane to me, but it makes sense in the Bonnie idiom. It makes me see this particular album as a real turning point in Oldham’s canon. I would argue that his more despairing stuff is behind him, and from here on in we get more of his showman side, because the next few Bonnie albums are somewhat more alt-pop-country, easy to enjoy but there’s a certain genre-ness to them that loses much of the punkiness of Oldham’s spikier, weirder younger days. In any case, while this is a nice enough version, with a pretty tune, it’s the least interesting so far. Also finishes with some nice whistling.
The World’s Greatest… written by R.Kelly, who fanboy Oldham has worked with on one of his “Stuck in the Closet” videos. Musically speaking Oldham’s version sounds nothing like Kelly’s, but having said that I note that the vocal melody is not that different, and actually Kelly’s is quite a smooth light affair. Oldham turns it into an great little country-pop song. It’s one of the album’s best tracks. Lyrically, the song makes something of a quantum leap forward from “Cycles.” On that song the narrator was happy just to keep his head up high, but on this song he claims to be “a tall tree,” “a giant,” “a mountain peak up high,” and “that star up in the sky.” That’s because, “I made it / I’m the world’s greatest.” This is evidently not quite the braggadocio it first appears to be though. Firstly, the soft way it’s sung suggests humility, and secondly, the latter half of the chorus gives the game away: “I’m that little bit of hope / With my back against the ropes.” Thus the song comes across as a self-help mantra—something you say to yourself when you’re down and nobody else is offering you a pick-me-up. Still, the trajectory of the album is pretty clear – it’s the singer-songwriter looking back on his career and saying “hey, I’m glad I made it” this far and I’ve found my place at last. I’m the music man. The final words of this song, and hence the album, go: “In the ring of life, I’ll reign, love / And the world will notice a king,” which calls to mind a couple of Oldham songs, namely “A King At Night” from Ease Down The Road and “A Minor Place” from I See A Darkness in which Oldham had offered to thank the world if it would anoint him. I can’t help feeling Oldham’s voice emerges through this covers album, butterfly-like, into some much less freaky kind of wolfman—one you could possibly be friends with.
For quite a few weeks of enjoying this album I had not even realized these songs were covers—yeah, I didn’t know any of these songs before this. In that sense I think I enjoyed it a lot more than if I’d already been familiar with some of the tunes. And that’s why in my mind, Oldham’s come to create, for me, definitive versions. He would do more country covers on some of the 7”s and EPs to follow. He continues the melodic country-pop vibe on the next full length LP Lie Down In The Light.