At first Lie Down In The Light seemed less thematically linked across the course of its eleven songs than most Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy albums. I had thought it more focused on individual songs rather than crafting a specific feel or obvious theme but closer listening has changed my mind. One of the reasons for this is the lighter tone and feel of the album than any of the past seven BPB efforts; it probably has most in common with the refined melodies of Ease Down The Road. There’s a strong country flavour of course, as there has always been in Oldham’s work, but here it really veers toward the poppier end of the spectrum with some of Oldham’s smoothest vocal work to date. The main theme seems to be a kind of stoicism, or something about Nieztche’s eternal return, the idea that whatever happens, bad or good, is always fated and therefore good. We get some meta-songs about the point of singing, some break up songs and then a bit of subdued philosophy about time unraveling, loved ones dying, life going on, finally surrendering all this fate to a universal mind. Side One is by far the more melodic, with strong harmonies and duets, whereas Side Two takes us into moody, subdued, downcast, pensive mode. No wonder it took me so long to fathom this album. Side Two just never gelled with me for a long time.
Easy Does It… presumably sets the tone for the whole album and brings to mind the title of his 2001 album Ease Down The Road. He counts in, “one, two, three, four,” and Oldham has said that he pays attention to first lines of the first songs on albums, so here we get, “When there’s only one thing I can do / Well you know that I still don’t want to do it / And where there’s just one way to get through / Sometimes I still don’t want to go through with it,” in a wondrous semi-falsetto, with whining fiddle, a jaunty country rhythm, positively upbeat; the melody is joyous. You have to love this kind of honesty because it’s when poets and lyricists are being honest with themselves that they connect with the wider world and draw people into their fold. I would wager that the “one thing” Oldham can do is just this – write music and sing songs. And he’s admitting that even that’s work, and like anyone, he still doesn’t want to do it. I like that admission. The irony is that he does do it—he is doing it, and we’re listening to the fruits of the work. He mentions finding other ways to get around, presumably shortcuts, “the wood and the caves and the bad women’s way / That were always to be found.” But he talks about “just one way / To stretch out my arms and cry,” and this always leads to having to say farewell because he’s a traveling minstrel, a wanderer, a troubadour, a drifter: “And I wander and lay in whatever old bed / With good earthly music singing into my head” while Emmet Kelly harmonizes along. And he lists the only things that one needs to get by in this old world which include friends, family, a path, a beach, a horseshoe crab and a girlfriend. So, don’t fret it. Easy does it. The song is delightfully tuneful, the music fitting the theme perfectly. Smooth highs and lows, all the pieces falling into a pretty arrangement. This appears on the live album Funtown Comedown, 2009.
You Remind Me Of Something (the Glory Goes)… immediately the tone becomes more subdued, with a pitter-pattering percussion, Ashley Wheeler singing in light harmony. Again, that fiddle enters and adds a lovely percussive element to the shadowy tune. Oldham starts off singing about night-dwellers, the so-called seedy underbelly of society, the wicked, who revel “in midnight clothes,” pick “scabs from off their skin” and who roll “holy deeply into the rhythm” of a song that has no end. In addition to singing “this song which has no end,” the Oldham-narrator himself is a song that has no end, and this is why you, dear night-dweller, remind the singer of himself, because he too is one who revels like a song. That means the party goes on: “I like the places where the night does not mean an end.” Despite the minor key melody, the singing is still very upbeat, and the melody really sweet, with real forward momentum in the rhythm. And so what is “this song that has no end”? Is it the life of one who has made singing his career? I imagine so. In that sense, we have here another meta-song, where “you sing me back into myself,” which suggests that the ‘song’ which is “a man and a woman and everything else” is not only a two-way street but a way of life, Oldham’s life – it’s all a song. This is a celebration. There’s a suggestion in here that the song, and hence the singer, came from his mother who “is a good one as I go” and he tells us that “it’s been years since I found it / I still go where it pounded / My ears pressed to the chest of that one woman’s song / She adores me, she ignores me and I revel on / In wonder at something so sweet and so long,” which as mentioned above is the night that does not end, thus allowing “dancing [that] goes on in the kitchen until dawn.” Really loving the fiddle on these songs. Fades out. A live version can be heard on Funtown Comedown.
So Everyone… is one of those brilliant duets, male female, sung back and forth to one another and then together. It opens with several hard acoustic guitar strums before Oldham adds a louder vocal over top. It seems to be a simple love song with a weird twist about performing some sex act in public so that “everyone sees me / Sees that she loves me.” Why sex act? She mentions having “a little bit of magic left in me / How to make a one like you swoon,” and so he asks her to “take it / O take me / O take me so easy / O make it / O make me / O kneel down and please me / O lady / O boy / Show how you want me / And do it so everyone sees.” So she’s a mountain girl that he’s found, who sits at her window looking out for boys. I love the opening line here which somehow insinuates the simplicity and reciprocity of love: “I know my way around the world / It’s a circle and it starts and ends.” The rest of the song continues this pleading for public love. Once the first chorus starts, the bass, drums and electric guitar all join to fill up the sound while both singers join voices in unison. The chorus melody rises up, and the instrumentation ascends in support as the song reaches its high-pitched climax: “Now I want everyone to see / I’m a good person and free / And she loves me.” This chorus continues round a few more times, the two voices merging in and out.
For Every Field There’s A Mole… is an odd breezy little number, pony-riding clip clop beat, offering some kind of obscure wisdom. So we get lyrics about achieving goals and becoming top of your game, “I am the king of infinite space,” but this is juxtaposed against a verse about losing your sight (hence the mole reference) and then suffering when it’s all gone. Sounds like a reference to King Lear. In any case, “there’s a time to sing these things / And a time to have them sung / A time to bring the tune / And a time to have it brung.” It all seems to turn dire as the singer shifts his consciousness towards “those things that don’t get sung / And a hold to hold your throat / To stifle that crying choke.” Oldham’s our man for when it comes to singing things that don’t get sung, that much is true, which suggests that for every song that won’t get sung, there’s some bold individual out there who’ll sing it for us. Instrumentation is simple, minor key, moody, low soft organ tones under the acoustic strum and light toms. Oldham’s in sweet sad voice here. Then we get a jazzy instrumental break with clarinet, male backing vocals on the chorus, and an ‘oooh-ahhh’ vocal choir behind this. This is professional stuff, mixed beautifully. Short and sweet.
Keep An Eye On Other’s Gain… is back to a slightly faster more upbeat rhythm. Stronger attack on the guitar sound, other slightly weird whining tones behind that and harmonized singing, with a pensive quality. I’ve always had a soft spot for those Oldham songs which seem so wrong on the surface. The ‘advice’ which the narrator learned from his parents in this song is that “if you are to stay ahead,” you should “keep eye on other’s gain” because “there’s only so much here upon the earth to go around.” Somehow this sentiment is dovetailed into a song about keeping your loved ones nearby in case they need you, or you need them. A lyric at the start about how some people’s hearts “are guarded from the blows of random pain,” connects up toward the end where the narrator offers his elbows “to fend away your eyes and mouth from harmful blows / And body from decay.” Seems then, the song is about keeping it in the family, something about group psychology, or an ironic take on familial partisanship, or a straight take on protectionism. Maybe it’s just a good old love song. Who knows. Maybe, it’s a deliberate ploy to be gently ambiguous, to trick bigots into raising a fist in support so you know who to stay away from. The song is warm, nicely harmonized melody, but perhaps the first one to drift through the middle section without any real changes to keep it interesting. More of a mood piece caught in the rhythmic thrust of the four-four strumming and other tones warbling in the background. But vocally, Oldham sounds quite genuine in this song. “Others don’t have a bed like mine / They sleep out in the rain,” he sings at the beginning.
You Want That Picture… is a very melodic little number, another duet, this time about a break up. Oldham’s male narrator has been the one to end the relationship. The female voice, Ashley Webber, sings the first verse, offering her ex-lover a picture of herself bawling. He, on the other hand, offers her a picture of himself as “heartless cold me” with a weight lifted off his shoulders, now flying, enjoying his freedom. In both cases they each admit the truth of this image, but both explain that despite the ill feeling they went outside at night and “looked at the sky / And knew someday I’d die / And then everything would be all right.” This is basic stoicism, putting up with pain, realizing that in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter, it’ll all come to seem trivial one day. You see, “it’s all right and everything comes down to this / That everything there ever was, or will be, is all there is.” Sounds vaguely Buddhist to me but it’s ancient ain’t it? The tune is awfully catchy, with a neo-stop-time section just before the harmonized chorus, but when the chorus hits, the music becomes doomy, while the voices trail each other in ponderous mood. Then we abruptly change back to the country tones of the verse. Webber has a lovely voice. Nice song, with interesting dynamic changes. This appears on the live album Funtown Comedown, 2009.
Missing One… appears to be an innocent enough song about missing an ex-lover (the girl from the previous song?) and still being in love with her. Well, hang on, that’s a tautology. Missing someone does suggest you’ve still got strong feelings for them. This song is about the beginning of that process: “I know that missing you / Has just begun / There’s years to come.” But he’s not regretful, doesn’t want her back, nor to trade places, but rather, seems genuinely grateful for whatever positive aspect of her that might have rubbed off on him, so that “my fulfillment / Will be to do what I have to do / As you taught me to.” Which makes the song slightly bittersweet and a little sad. The music here is again subdued, at low ebb, quiet slow bass, and Oldham’s light vocal back to his wavery style, ruminative and a little regretful. This almost sounds like it could belong on Master And Everyone. Between verses we get a few heavily strummed chords, which also end the song. A song that tends to get missed the first few times I played the album.
What’s Missing Is… a hard swath to mow. Perhaps this is a continuation of the previous song, given the ‘missing’ theme. This is even slower, quieter, musically less interesting. It’s almost like there’s a definite mood being set up for Side Two. The song consists of three short verses, the first about missing things, such as a pillow, a loving willow and “some care once denied.” The next is about “what’s plenty,” which includes gods, tongues, breaths and lungs, while the last verse defines rhythm, which leads towards the delightfully raw line, “meat against meat.” Hm, but what’s really missing is any semblance of sense linking these three verses into a coherent statement. Perhaps that’s the point. The melody is practically hymnal, especially with Kelly’s quiet vocal contribution. The fiddle draws out a long line after the second verse, a few pedal steel notes plunking, and background whining from the fiddle. These two ‘missing’ songs keep the melody subdued, and change the tone somewhat, but don’t quite seem like filler.
Where Is The Puzzle?… brings back the stronger rhythm, louder instrumentation, two singers soaring together, although while the volume is raised, the mood of this piece remains just as brooding, almost aching in time with the long flowing lines of the vocal melody. There’s quite a few songs on this album referencing the family, or parents, especially mum. Here’s another, in which the Oldham-singer asks, “How do I let my family know / O I’m disappearing into the wind?” This state of disappearing seems to equate with bliss, now that he knows everything, meaning conclusion is here, an end, and hence bliss. Again, ‘song’ seems to be the medium as it was in the album’s first song, “Easy Does It,” in which knowledge is born and passed on, while “my body fades … your life goes on.” ‘Song’ is troubled however, as it has to be; for Oldham, song is the site where learning takes place and converts into knowledge. Getting back to the title of this song, “where is the puzzle / that bothered me so?” he asks, and one wonders if he’s referring to the Palace era, or one’s twenties, when everything was so much of a puzzle, and how that all fades, and life no longer seems like the huge quandary it once did. Is this related to aging? Or is it related to acquiring assets and security? The puzzle’s disappeared, back there in the past, in his songs, and now all he can do is “trust only you,” and “sing you” with woo-hooing owl like tones. The rock rhythm is nicely placed though, after those two ‘missing’ songs.
Lie Down In The Light… back to the light ‘easy’ feel of Side One. A crisp acoustic guitar with plenty of audible string-squeak carries the rhythm, a few heavy piano notes intone in the background, and a mid-tempo lightly pattering rhythm. Nevertheless the melody is again, relatively somber, no, not quite somber, but somewhere between somber and steel-eyed. Lying down in the light is offered as an alternative to frowning or trying. To do what? He doesn’t say. He does say however, to “heed this word: beware / For my heart’s ways are unclear / A fundamental prayer / Leaves the evil one stripped bare,” which sounds dangerous, harking back to the Oldham of I See A Darkness and Superwolf. He wants to know who’s going to hold his heart and be his own. Listening between the lines, I get the feeling he’s singing about death, about one partner being left behind when the other dies: “It’s as if we tried to know what we really can’t know.” The song takes a couple of left turns in the middle, with shuffly brushes, and a strange broken-string twang popping in and out. The tune is far more subtle, but the song seems infinitely less satisfying. Perhaps that’s its strength though.
Willow Trees Bend… and yet again, we have another slow number, a few arpeggio-type strums on the guitar between the vocal parts before a lovely acoustic guitar melody winds in over brushed-drums. I like this song a lot. It has a water-colour quality, evoking nature, an autumnal mood, burnt ocher leaves, a breeze, a cloudy day, lonesomeness by the river, an almost jazzy mood between the whining fiddle, unpredictable percussion and warm arpeggios. This is great stuff. Lyrically it’s a curious little number, seemingly in reverence to some higher power, but in the face of this higher power’s fire, “I will surrender,” he sings, “to you,” you presumably being that higher power named in the song as “lord.” Surrendering is a kind of supplicating, a bending of the knee, and the narrator begins by singing, “willow trees bend / But I won’t bend / I will never lay down.” Surrendering will only come if “lord” demands it, or if “the world at large asks” for it. A theme emerges in one verse which connects this song with the previous one, something about how though we may die, our actions leave repercussions into the future: “We live forever … / The river carries on clouded with what we’ve done / The deeds of me and you.” Because of this, “we have a power / All animals do.” Philosophical stuff or stoical fluff? The music supports that ambiguity beautifully. Probably my favourite on Side Two.
I’ll Be Glad… gets positively religious with its main sentiment, “Lord, I don’t want to go without you anymore.” Webber sings backing again here, and the tune returns the album’s mood back to light, as though we’ve been through something of a slightly dark journey these past four songs. Several verses offer variations on this theme. Lord provides our Bonnie narrator with rest and drink and strength, and so as long as Lord goes somewhere first, the narrator is happy to follow along. “When you get your flock together / Please take me along / Lord, I’m too weak to travel / I’ll be glad you’re strong / And I’ll lean on your arm.” Where does that leave us? Last song on the LP, and we have a song worryingly God-bothering. There’s not much else to it. But there’s a warm, loving feel to this song. Oldham’s voice is strong again here. We get some slightly maudlin country pedal steel guitar. It’s nice enough, but that’s faint praise. The song’s best moment comes right at the end with three voices singing “woooh, woooh” in a strange choral harmony.
So, I’m glad I’ve finally listened to this album in closer detail and cast a kind of narrative arc through it. It was never an easy album to get into back in 2008, mainly because the second side bored me, not realizing what the purpose of the mood change was. But looking at the lyrics I can see what’s happening here. It’s an album of two halves, and probably on a par with Ease Down The Road, though not as strong an album as I had come to think it was. His next album, 2009’s Beware, while more country oriented, shares similarly strong production and tunes.