So Oldham’s tried on a new system of distribution for this album, his first to feature only himself and guitar since 1994’s Days In The Wake. We get this image of a humble relatively unknown singer-songwriter humping his swag of LPs and cassette tapes around the Kentuckian countryside dropping them off at local record stores, and leaving them on a sale or return basis. I like that image. At time of writing (September 24, 2013) the album still hasn’t had any kind of international release nor is it even available through usual web-based distribution channels, which means you’ve got all these overnight entrepreneurs exploiting a demand situation vastly out of sync with supply. Oldham must have known this would happen and it tickled his fancy. All joy to him. It would’ve tickled my fancy too.
The record was entirely unexpected. We’ve already had one pretty awesome album from Oldham this year—who could have expected a second? And the neat thing is that he’s taken it back to basics. I wish more of my favourite bands understood that more money blown on production does not for a better album make, nor do $ spent have much bearing on the artistry or the art. The songs average three minutes, meaning the album clocks in at around half an hour.
Lyrically the album seems to hark back to a Palace ethos of moody eccentric non-sequiturs, weird half-contradictions, solipsistically disguised honesty, and dark themes that wouldn’t look out of place on his first Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album from 1999. Why this is a good move, as far as I’m concerned is precisely this: I imagine with fame comes an expectation of moral responsibility, or, I don’t know, some kind of pressure to think in a more establishment-embracing way, or some such bullshit, and what Oldham gives us on Bonny ‘Prince’ Billy is precisely what he’s always given us—the exact opposite of that, but not quite in a punk way, more like society turned inside out, the truth of meaning’s relationship to meaninglessness laid bare, the battle between good and evil where no one can say what’s good and what’s evil exactly, and that there’s a large overlap between them. And don’t forget, Oldham is the song. Anyway, I’ll quit waxing loose and theoretical and start the commentary already. Roll it Bumstead…
I Heard Of A Source… contains the line, “I don’t want to go to hell anymore,” probably the most poignant and beautifully sung line on the whole album. Couple that with “I still want some love for me,” and we sense the narrator’s yearning to get away from the darkness and to seek some kind of redemption. The ‘source’ in the song might be a spring, though a spring of what remains unclear – alcohol? The fountain of youth? The artist’s muse? In any case the song’s singer, contemplating his past, seems remorseful, even a little self-pitying as he confesses, with a hidden sneer beneath the pure-toned voice, to having a bear for a dad and a skunk for a mom. The guitar playing is a sparse finger-picked affair, the voice riding a pretty falsetto far over the instrumental melody, mood somber, reflective, nostalgic. He sings about coming from a hill where the routes were all closed, presumably he means escape routes.
Lessons From Stony… light acoustic guitar, pensive vocal about parting ways, going on alone. Stony appears as a mentor or role model of some kind, the name ‘Stony’ suggesting someone incapable of showing feelings or sympathy, thus “lessons learned from Stony have suited my heart best,” sings Oldham. Stony however, who had professed to be the narrator’s “loud and ornery ally,” moves on, especially when he finds out the speaker is “half-woman” and so they part ways. But why? Someone screwed the speaker over, which is what brought him to Stony in the first place, which is to suggest that Oldham’s persona is the stonier of these two faux-buddies who each have “half hearts” and “full mouths.” The melody is pretty, though slight, and Oldham’s light airy vocal completes the theme of insouciance.
Triumph Of Will… not related to the Devo song of similar name, but one imagines the title as something of a pun and it wouldn’t be the first time, “We All, Us Three, Will Ride,” and “Stable Will,” being two that spring to mind. The song continues the lonely theme of the previous song, which is what I’m calling the “Two In The Campagna” theme—a poem by Robert Browning in which the poet-persona laments the impossibility of two lovers ever becoming one, and something about the irony of the sexual union being rent apart at the very moment it forms. Here Oldham sings whimsically over more quietly austere finger-picking to create another pretty and subtle melancholy melody. He gets quite worked up (triumphant?) over the chorus—check out this long winding line: “We are two separate people, we never will be one / Except through triumph of our will, in which what came before we met is fully gone and yes I love you still and need to know that I can get lost fully in our song.” The final line, “our bell of faith is ringing” suggests that despite the tear in the couple’s fabric, hope rests on the horizon. Getting lost together, whatever that might mean, especially in a song, is one way to exist in harmony, an idea that’s cropped on several BPB albums now.
I Will Be Born Again… seems to be sung from the perspective of a rapist perhaps, or some bloke who’s raised hell, because “every girl who thought you fine, steps from you in the street,” and now “the loved becomes the hated.” Something wrong has happened in any case, and his life has been turned upside down, “weird has come,” and he seeks change, hence the title with its ring of Christian-like redemption: “I will be born again, again,” that second ‘again’ suggesting that he’s already on his second life now. So basically this chap has turned his life inside out, having “done all of the things you said you’d never do and all acts of treason ring and you do not know you.” The song is slower, only a few arpeggios on guitar, while vocal carries all the melody, Oldham stripped absolutely bare here, and the chorus may just be the second most beautiful moment on the album, “I will be born again, again / I will be born again, again / I will be born again, again.” Another song of hope, bleak though its background may be.
Make It Not An Evil Mark… seems to attend to the idea that what’s sung is a fictional experience, and not necessarily based in any kind of reality, and so you, dear listener, will be an accomplice in the crime if you make the mistake of not being able to discern between a song lyric and an actual action. This subtle meta-twist at the heart of the song seems necessary because the rest of the lyrics are awfully dark; “All our hearts are stained and every love is tainted / And over every red hole a black door is nailed and painted.” And if those words don’t hint enough at the potential for a songwriter to sing of the dark side of his heart, then we get, “You would take all colours away / If it was in your power / And cut a hole to mar your skin and shit on every flower.” Oldham’s narrator choruses in, saying that we can “Make it good and make it silly / Make it lessened by the dark / Make it cum onto her face and make it not an evil mark.” This takes us right back to the dark themes encountered on songs like “Song For the New Breed” and “Today I Was An Evil One,” on I See A Darkness. But it’s as though Oldham is singing a song that explains those songs. “After all, it’s a song,” he tells us, “It is not an action.” The point being, you can sing what you like, but if as a listener you don’t like what you’re hearing, don’t take out your disgust or moral indignation on the singer, because you might just as easily read it as black humour, or choose to see it as irony in order to “make it good and make it silly.” Lots of fret scrape, a simple strummed rhythm holds the song together. Oldham almost turns it into a pop song when he repeats the chorus in spirited voice.
The Spotted Pig… is standard Oldham humour, the subtlest of self-deprecating ironies: “Hidden in the chest at the foot of my bed is the filthy spotted pig I’ve owned for so long.” And later, “Little hairs from your swimsuit sprouting from the sty.” Yet the song is kind of disturbing too. I mean, “spotted pig” itself sounds vaguely ominous, disease-ridden, dirty, yet as Oldham says, “to live with the pig you should have no pride.” The ‘you’ in the song gets loved for her modesty but punished for her vanity. Oldham wants to know where he can put his fingers “that will make you weep.” The spotted pig has already made ‘you’ cry once, and in fact the spotted pig’s song is similar to the sound of wailing. What is the spotted pig? A symbol for something? That’s a mug’s guessing game. The jaunty melody betrays the pleasure Oldham’s narrator takes in singing punishment songs.
This Is My Cocktail… with a song that begins, “This is my cocktail and I drink it cos I love it,” one is led to assume that the “this” is the song itself. This song harks back to a younger Oldham, one who force-fits words into a meter, allowing his voice to twist out of shape on certain lines that reach a little too far. Hear him sing, “And kills the yearn to justify,” barely holding the line together like Oldham of yore. So his cocktail is made up of several ingredients – death: “when you find your skin has been broke in by a thousand worms who cannot wait for you to be gone,” a sense of humour: “fun is how you should define one’s way,” sex: “bedding down with twins,” God: who “will walk right in and take a picture of this holy group of three,” and finally sadness: “it is enough to cry.” The narrator really only needs two things he tells us, his mind and his body, which he fears losing. The song maintains an even keel; the melody seems improvised. It’s certainly not as melancholy as the lyrics would suggest if taken too literally but Oldham does a fine line in abjection.
Bad Man… the ominous tone of the few plucked notes and the rhythm supports the theme of the lyrics quite nicely here, like a western, an outlaw: “I try to stay quiet because I am a bad man,” sings Oldham, then more threateningly, “Mind your own business and stay seven feet back / Get any closer and I’m bound to attack.” The song almost feels whispered, though this is less outlaw music and more psychological rupture: “If you hear my mind, you know how bad I am.” It’s short, but filled with compact menace. A snake in the grass of a song, though it doesn’t quite go anywhere. Lovely shadowy tune that sounds similar to the material on Jose Gonzales’s album Veneer.
Ending It All (As I Do)… the maddening thing about Oldham’s lyrics is not that they’re solipsistic or even obliquely poetic, which they are or certainly can be, but that the subjects and objects of sentences and antecedents and referents of pronouns are often missing, so that you never quite know who or what he’s singing about – we only get the residual emotions; the lyrics by themselves only tell a fraction of the story, Oldham’s voice tells the rest. This is one such song. All I can say is that someone is leaving (a theme repeated over and over in Oldham songs) and he seems to slap someone as he leaves, “Take a look at the back of my hand / The last thing you see as it falls away,” and later, “Try to remember the taste of my hand.” The leaving here is really only a man leaving for work, he returns each day, and smacks his woman around. He leaves to the call of the devil, and returns home to listen to God. What’s important is to “remember the light on the land” just as he’s “ending it all, as I do, every day.” The song has a familiar seesawing melody.
Royal Quiet Deluxe… and here’s another song about leaving, getting away from a woman to some place “far far away” along Interstate 64. This song’s protagonist has lost all capacity for love, “all my love is in a hole, and is dead.” He gets away to West Virginia which makes him happier, but even then, he knows it’s all a lie. This man is on the run from a woman who screams – he seems similar to the protagonist of “I Will Be Born Again.” He sings of dying many times, which means if you die over and over you presumably are born again and again. The tune and strumming pick up towards the end, where we learn “this is the last song of its kind,” and indeed it is the last song on the album, suggesting there’s a thematic link across most of these tracks, which I haven’t pieced together like I tried to do with Superwolf. The music and words of this song don’t quite fit into any easy movement of melody/rhythm; the song follows its own trajectory in accord with the demands of the lyrics. Why “Royal Quiet Deluxe” then? Quiet, certainly. Royal = prince? Royal Stable music? Deluxe = the final lyric, “Ain’t it the best / Ain’t it the best.”
A low key release to be sure, quiet, with melodies that trace a finely nuanced line between conventional and non. Oldham seems content to let his voice sail, drift and bob rather than soar, as suits the kinds of songs you find here. I wonder if they’ll get a full band treatment on tour. This is an intimate album, one that will grow, but it’ll take time for those subtlest of melodies to develop wings and take flight in your mind.
Click HERE to see the full Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy discography on vinyl.