This would be the second Marquis/Bonny collaboration between Will Oldham and Mick Turner (of the Dirty Three), the first being the Get On Jolly EP released in 2000. There’s a neat yellow flyer that comes with the record giving a bit of background to Oldham and Turner’s collaborations of yore and the impetus behind this EP. It also informs us that where the lyrics for the earlier EP were taken from Tagore’s collection of devotionals Gitanjali, this time they come from the Bible; Psalms to be exact. What’s a psalm? A sacred song or hymn. Once again, the music is freeform floaty, almost liquid. It sounds closer to a modern Dirty Three song than Bonnie Billy, with vocals where the soaring violins would be. Listening to this over a few times, I found myself unable to decipher the designs behind it but then remembered I should steer clear of issues of intent. It would be tempting to relate the money-mad evildoers of Psalm 28 with Wall Street. But there is something about Oldham imploring the Lord to “Punish them, punish them [the wicked]” that comes across as so archly religo-bigoted it produces a belly laugh. That doesn’t mean the music and singing doesn’t add up to something quite wondrous. The depth and mercurial quality of the sound here is like a river gurgling along in the depths of your soul. Are there melodies? Not really, but after several listens, you start to pick up faint hints of themes and subtle hooks, especially between the interweaving vocals of Oldham and Angel Olsen, who was Oldham’s feminine vocal foil on 2011’s Wolfroy Goes To Town.
First Hymn – Solemn 28… is a psalm otherwise known as “The Silence of God” in which Oldham takes on the role of King David. The song opens with muted drums, a low-toned organ line, and the two singers improvising their vocal lines out of sync with each other. The main melody is played on that strangely oscillating keyboard line. At first the whole thing sounds barely held together, but after hearing it numerous times, I’m getting more and more hooked on the quite wondrous melodies floating through the mix and the lovely deep percussion. It’s magical. In this Psalm (or ‘Solemn’ if you prefer) David is frustrated and sulky that God never actually ‘talks’ to him: “If you Lord refuse to answer me I may as well as give up and die.” Thus he becomes worried that when God exacts revenge against the wicked, he too might be swept up in God’s wrath. He then rattles on about “the wicked and the evildoers” and spends the rest of the prayer imploring God to “pay them according to their deeds, pay them according to their malicious deeds, according to their handiwork … and … give them their punishment.” Oldham has edited the Psalm down to a few key sections, but he seems to particularly revel in the theme of punishment. One feels there’s a kind of anti-ironic cruel humour at play here. He finishes by asking God to “deliver and bless every one of us,” us being those who have exulted God. Musically this is mighty fine stuff, a little more accessible than the Get On Jolly material.
Second Hymn – Solemn 10… seems to stick with the exact same theme of “Solemn 28.” And so we get a similar muted drum thump, slippery guitar notes, a subdued solemn atmosphere. Oldham sounds pensive, questioning, a little disappointed. Once again, Oldham’s David (or should that be David’s Oldham?) whines and complains of God’s absence: “Why are you standing aloof and far away? You seem heedless in these times of trouble.” The problem I have with this is that “times of trouble” is culturally and geographically relative. If all times are times of trouble then God is always absent. David then starts wishing revenge on his enemies. I wonder what his enemies think? Why should we automatically take David’s side? “The wicked crows about his unbridled lusts,” sings Oldham as though he’s never had a single unbridled lust in his life. Hypocrisy or what, says Oldham, perhaps enjoying the ridiculous irony of those who take the moral highground. These wicked people “mock all of their opponents … think they … will not be shaken … in trouble,” while waiting in “dark alleys … to slay innocents,” or “wait like lions to pounce upon the poor.” Hello corporate bankers of Europe and America, “mischief and evil are under [your] tongues.” But what’s worse is that they think “God is not mindful” and that “he never looks.” This track is the least melodic, maintaining an even keel throughout until the last part, which is my favourite, this brilliant line of no small humour, mainly because of Oldham’s voice: “But you do look, you do look,” he sings in high voice, sounding like an elementary school pupil convinced of his connection with God. The song ends with more exhortations for God to “punish them, punish them, so that when we look for this wickedness, we will find it no more.” It’s also hard not to listen to these last lines without cracking a smile. Olsen sings light wordless notes throughout the song.
Third Hymn – Solemn 119… is described by Psalms analyst Artur Wesier as a “Hymn in praise of the law.” Unlike the first two tracks, which I couldn’t find exact sources for, the words for Solemn/Psalm 119 are taken direct from The Living Bible, though once again, certain verses from between 96 and 112 have been specially selected. This one is more like a manifesto—the speaker wants to follow God’s “perfect … words.” A lovely harmonizing fills in the opening of the song, with watery snippets of brooding electric guitar, drum rolls, tambourines and other faint percussions. The song builds in intensity. “Oh how I love them,” he says re: the words, “I think about them all day long.” He feels wise as a result of studying God’s words, wiser than his enemies, his teachers and the aged, which gets sung in one of Oldham’s most fabulous falsettos. Thus he images these words as “sweeter than honey” and as “a flashlight to light the path” ahead of him to keep him from stumbling. If he’s about to stumble it’s because “I am close to death at the hands of my enemies.” The music builds in very similar fashion to one of those grungy Dirty Three songs, and after spinning the record a few times, I have to say, the ‘melody’ gets stronger with every listen. This is fantastic, especially when the Solemn ends with the beautifully entwined voices of Oldham and Olsen, he singing “Your laws are my joyous treasure forever,” and she, “I am determined to obey you until I die.” Slow fade out, with those faint “ooh ooh” sounds that opened the song. Awesome stuff.
This could have been a long playing masterpiece if they’d recorded an album’s worth of material. Alas we only get three songs, a ‘leave ’em wanting more’ strategy that must have paid off the first time around with Get On Jolly. I’m pretty sure I’ll be playing this a lot more for awhile yet. Maybe what I perceived as humorous will dissolve and become more serious over time, or maybe the opposite will be true — I’ll keep finding nodes of humour and have more of those private little moments with Oldham as if I’m in on the joke. Check out the etching on Side Two of the vinyl below. It’s only April and this is the third Oldham release of the year. Go HERE to see the complete Will Oldham vinyl discography in review.