Beware was probably the first Bonnie album I knew I was going to like after only one listen. The cadences and nuances of his voice and song were now firmly etched in my mind, patterns and recognitions and blueprints; perhaps he sensed our expectations were being met too readily and that might be why his next album, Wonder Show Of The World, changed sonic direction again, but in my mind Beware shares something of a similar aesthetic with Lie Down In The Light, perhaps in the sense that it mixes two or three different versions of Oldham into one album. There is another clear link between the two albums; the title “Beware” originated on that 2008 album, appearing in the lyrics to the title track: “Heed these words: Beware for my heart’s ways are unclear.” The idea that Oldham’s only just now suggesting that fans ought to be wary of the Bonnie Billy behind the Bonnie Billy is odd. It was obvious from day one that we were dealing with an unreliable narrator. What we are dealing with is a total package—a man who acknowledges both the sensible and insensible parts of himself.
Beware might be the first time he’s acknowledged so blatantly that even Will Oldham gets lost in the persona—his postmodern hall of mirrors. The inner sleeve has a lifesize picture of a one dollar bill with handwriting along the top: the words read “Seek the wolf in thyself,” which comes from the Metallica song, “Of Wolf And Man.” In my interpretation of the Bonnie persona, this has come to mean that to examine one’s life one must burrow deep into the seven-eighths of the iceberg, the unconscious mind, in order to seek out and revel in the abject part of one’s subjectivity.
So, never mind the easily impressionable teenager, how about the middle-aged fan who’s bothered to sit through a zillion Oldham lyrics trying to unpick something of worth from them? Do we listen to Oldham for a message of some kind or do we listen for the way his voice circles curlicues of not oft-expressed thought around our ears? Beware is a ‘darker’ album than the last few—if he truly is down in the dumps, it might be because he revealed too much of himself on Lie Down In The Light. What if the “lie” in that title were a verb of speech rather than a verb of action? A touch exposed, he’s returned to deliberate obfuscation; seemingly meaningful lyrics shot through with random curveballs and the old “don’t trust anything I say” routine. In saying this, he’s only opening his heart wider. This man has given us his all and that forces him into a cycle, the endless need to keep wiping out past selves with new versions. That brings us into the heart of Beware, an album about the unknowable quantity that is identity.
Beware Your Only Friend… opens with a crisp strum, a warm bass, and female backing singers in order to access some awful truth from the inactive part of its narrator’s mind, the part that wants “to be your only friend,” the part “where the seed of soul-sucking grows.” Despite acknowledging that his “active mind” doesn’t want this, the inactive/unconscious mind gets angry when others manage to get your attention. This sounds like the kind of insecurity you feel at the beginning of a relationship, that self-defeating desire to be everything in the eyes of the object of your affection, the ego on overdrive: “When each who comes around you, takes some of your life / That’s when I get angry / An outfit for my fright.” These lines are sung in exulted voice, with a dramatic build, the vocal support sounds beautiful, all sighs and swoons. By warning you about the demands of his “quiet mind” the Bonnie narrator is freeing both himself and you from his suffocating need for an impossible union. He thinks that, “you want to be my daughter,” suggesting she’s available to other men, whereas he “wanted you as my mother.” ie. someone forgiving of his misdemeanours while he roams free. There’s a break in the middle of the song, a lone fiddle whine while Bonnie speak-sings about the insecure friction and the static interference between himself and his lover that prevents them from ever reaching blissful union. It’s a powerful and quite poppy opener. A live version of this song appears on the 7″ “Beware Your Only Friend” released in 2o10.
You Can’t Hurt Me Now… changes mood to country ballad, sleepy mid-afternoon pedal steel lines, The title suggests that the narrator is either closing himself off from the world, or has had it revealed to himself that he is everyman, that his psychological make-up, his subjectivity, is constructed from without. “I know everyone knows the trouble I have seen,” he says, and later, “I know everyone has the happiness I have,” somehow drawing a line from “God’s plan” through himself in order to connect with everyone, because “everyone has the eyes and ears to be where I have been.” Yet, this statement of holistic oneness is contradictory: “The more I feel myself / The more alone I am,” he sings but one chorus later this changes to, “The more I feel myself / The more you’re close to me.” Though this navel-gazingness sounds like a Robert Smith lyric repeated ad nauseum at least its sung beautifully. We get a marimba before the main theme picks up again and the lyric tends towards nowheresville, though sung with great gusto and import: “ It don’t have to be known someday / Let’s do it now and not let someday get in the way.” What is it Will? Let’s do what now? Obfuscation through use of the empty pronoun leaves the song open-ended, and that’s what you get when lyrics turn abstract and philosophical.
My Life’s Work… big strummy opening, hinting at big dynamic shifts between verse and chorus to come, then drop away for quiet contemplation, with lone wailer in the background. The song seems like a natural continuation from the last one in that Oldham is singing about bridging the gap from himself to the listener. The melody is somewhat anthemic and would have made for a better closing track than placed here so early in the album, perhaps. “You want to go / From here to there … / I will pull / Ridge to ridge / With great stone cracking / Make wondrous bridge.” Chorus hits, after the song almost stops completely. The building of this bridge is a great “load,” the singer’s “life’s work” which he describes as bringing “the light / Out of the dark,” to us listeners. But to do this he had to “bust a hole in the ceiling” so that the light would “flow and show.” A self-sacrifice of some kind has been made by the artist, and union is achieved through the religion of song: “So this song becomes / The melody / Of you / As you’re the song of me.” We get a cornet blowing all eighties MOR through the post-chorus meltdown. The oohing and aahing of the lone backing singer is reminiscent of a theremin. Not a favourite I guess—I’ve never gone in for songs that try to manipulate our emotions with overly histrionic dynamic momentousness. The chorus is too much.
Death Final… in March 2011 Oldham contributed a track to Seven Swans Reimagined, a tribute version of Sufjan Stevens’s Seven Swans from 2004, a favourite of mine, the only Sufjan album I own in fact. I only mention that because of how much this track reminds me of that album, in tone, lyrical content and melody. The music returns to a slow country feel, easy melody, softer, with violin. What is “Death Final” about? The title conjures up a simple philosophical question: Is death the end? The third line of the first verse might suggest the narrator thinks not: “Our qualities will raise us in a light that blinds our mothers.” Furthermore, an angel appears in the song to warn us that “it was not death final / It was only fall” (that damned it again), referencing a Paradise Lost kind of theme perhaps. Beyond that though, Oldham’s narrator sings about receiving God’s blessing and God’s love and being “in a pit of bodies.” The chorus is pretty, though undecipherable from what I can tell: “In a pit of bodies / I am my own / By ham hock and by handkerchief / By damsel and by dawn.” Has he just had a night of wild orgying? Some more hard-to-connect images flail through the second verse such as summer, packs of dogs and “a smile hidden … in the working faces” leaves me feeling too blasé to even scratch my head. But between the pretty melody and earnest tones of Oldham’s voice, the song certainly conveys a unique whimsy, even if it’s impossible to articulate.
Heart’s Arms… is something of a sad number with the narrator—who for some reason I can’t help thinking is female though with no real evidence—lamenting the loss of her man who is “helpless and silent” and who no longer writes to her. She realizes it’s no good crying to him and fears that he’s “found something as good just next door.” Euphemisms abound—despite trying to win him back by opening her “awful machine to nothing,” his intimacies will no longer come “pounding.” Thus we reach the line containing the titular phrase, “what did you bind my heart’s arms for?” the Bonnie narrator wails, and wishes with a crumby rhyme that her man might “find glory in some new heart’s arms story” so that she “can close doors on mine for sure.” The song bleeds in slowly, quietly at first, then violin and voices, like a tide ebbing back in quiet moments before sweeping forward like a wind whipping up waves. The narrator, asking her question, seems pretty distraught about having her heart’s arms bound, before fading out. I like this one more than “My Life’s Work,” but it’s still a little faux, man, just a little too faux.
You Don’t Love Me… is a blackly comic number about being in a relationship with a woman who doesn’t love him, ergo, “I wanted a woman who loves who I am / And what I do / Then I met you.” She turns out to be someone who couldn’t care less if he “were Lord of Japan.” The song stands out after the last couple for its much more upbeat country rock melody and sense of buoyancy in the wry lyrics. She may not love the narrator, but at least she tells him how much she likes his eyes, the way he giggles, his smell or “how my stomach jiggles,” but there’s a sense of irony in the chorus: “You don’t love me / That’s all right / Because you cling to me all through the night.” Then we get one or two more openly comic lines such as “You say my kissing rates a six on a scale of one to ten,” and that “you wouldn’t pass the time with me ‘cept you’re tired of all your friends.” One suspects the truth of the matter hides in the fact of her clinging. A love song made more powerful for the singer’s ability to look at the situation matter-of-factly. The cornet joins again, and man, don’t we love what brass can bring to a pop-country number? Yes we do. The bass drum booms in the chorus, and Oldham sings as though he’s been riding top of the country pop for decades. Much loved number.
You Are Lost… opens up numerous interpretive possibilities with the ambiguous first verse and drifting pedal steel, which goes, “It was bound to happen / From when you first knew you / And pulled apart with will / From those around you.” Firstly, what is “it”? What was bound to happen? Getting lost? Is he singing to himself here? “When you first knew you,” and “pulled apart with will,” – with Will? Or deliberately? So, one might say, already I’m lost, as in, confused, because in the third verse we learn, “If you listen to me / You are lost,” and it follows “You are lost as I am singing / You are lost inside a sound.” He then puts forward the proposition that if you have love and purpose in your life, then you ought to close your eyes so as not to see the singing narrator who will only get you lost. Follow this advice and “that light will then shine fully on your face.” I guess this fits in with the title-theme of the album, Beware, but what’s the point? Has the narrator’s sense of selfness dissolved? Has he realized that it’s not quite possible to be the music? That no matter how much unraveling of your mind that you participate in, you still have to drag this hefty thing called a body around? The funny thing about this song, these songs, is that Oldham creates mild cognitive dissonance by juxtaposing a classic, almost saccharine and melancholy country style with lyrics you’d never find in that genre.
I Won’t Ask Again… continues straight on from “You Are Lost,” with the first verse asking “When I ask who I am / I ask it just of you / And you look at me puzzled / Saying, ‘What am I to do?’” A beautiful violin line accompanies the guitar. Oldham’s vocal is close, with reverb, giving it a very polished sheen, sounding not unlike crooner soul. Again, unanswerable philosophical questions about identity plague the narrator, who admits that it’s no good asking the same question again and again, because even if those who know the answer could tell him who he is, that would be their answer, not his, geddit? ie. “It would not be good / To know what only / Those who’ve learned it would.” This is sung by the female chorus, which reminds me of Sean Lennon’s first album in tone, and then we return to that lovely violin part. He next wants to know where he goes when he’s sleeping or dead, but recognizes that his interlocutor, the second person “you” in the song, can’t answer for him, or on his behalf, and that the answers are secrets anyway. In the end, he “won’t raise the thought” anymore and understands that the best way to go is to just go, where to “go” could mean to die, but probably just means to get on with life, and getting on with life is where the answer lies: “Where you go right with me / And quietly we maybe will just know.” One wonders if he’s talking to himself, a friend, or a lover, but it’s left unclear. The pace is slow, the feel, soul country pop. It’s incredibly ‘pretty’ and quite hummable. The arrangement is much smoother than some of the songs on side one, yet it still falls and swells and rises and drops, just without the agitation.
I Don’t Belong To Anyone… is another slightly comical song, with a pretty simple refrain: “I don’t belong to anyone / There’s no one who’ll take care of me / It’s pretty easy to have some fun / When you don’t belong to anyone.” However, he’s hardly preaching that remaining single is wonderful, and might even suggest in the second verse that this sentiment is “childish.” Instead he’ll “see what age brings.” He almost did belong to someone it seems, a child perhaps, “someone wanting to call me dad,” but a storm arrived and that fire was doused – break up, miscarriage, abortion? He conjectures that he can fall in love during the day but when night comes he starts doubting again, and decides there must be at least one lonely body out there somewhere, a she, “made just for me.” All he has to do, as in many Bonnie songs, is “follow the song I hear.” Again, we’ve got a very pure country crooner sound, Oldham’s singing is impeccable. Accordion, chiming guitar, pedal steel. It’s all here and it’s all just a touch too nice, ergo corny, which I guess suits with the comic bent of the lyrics. It’s also very melodic. Jennifer Butt sings back up. A slower less melodious version of this song was recorded for the 2012 EP Will Oldham On Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
There Is Something I Have To Say… is where the music turns far more interesting, moodier, darker and far less structured. The pace is very slow, but the music even feels vaguely improvised. Very low acoustic bass tones and complicated shifting arpeggios, with lots of short silences. The “something” he has to say turns out to be “goodbye.” He doesn’t sound too cut up about it, but, yep, the Bonnie narrator is on the road again, and he’ll be “leaving some time today.” There may be a phone nearby by which to keep in contact, but a phone can only keep “a voice so near,” not a person, especially one “going so very far.” Distance becomes a question – when we’re separated, we no longer know each other as we did, this space, “will make us other souls.” He wonders whether he and his beau, now left behind, can ever “find communion again” — whether as lovers or friends, it don’t matter, and is there a difference anyway? The song trails out asking a bunch more questions about whether love is something so easily disposed of, and whether their love will be remembered, and if he ends up loving others, what impact will the word “goodbye” really have? Is it really a ‘good’ bye, or a bad bye? The song is quite mournful, and cuts off suddenly at the end. Love this short number.
I Am Goodbye… obviously bleeds straight out of the previous song, pure country pop, this one so much more upbeat, like a different side to the persona that sang “There Is Something I Have To Say,” and in a not so subtle way references the Beatles’s “Hello Goodbye.” Instead of being all deep and brooding about it, this time he’s refusing to ask the hard questions, because “I’ll likely never know” why you’re hello and he’s goodbye. He seems to be celebrating the end of things, “like the end of something wonderful sometimes,” or “the way that a wound-up toy top unwinds.” The chorus is a huge singalong, with whining violin lines and distorted guitar break between choruses. Eventually “absence” crowds into his mind, and he’s gone, and he ain’t gonna be sentimental about it. The song seems to be more about promiscuity than love, as per the first verse, “You are hello, a glowing cry / Heaven we go, never say die.” Ah, but it’s only a one night stand and not worth getting upset about. “I am goodbye,” and a quite funny “wooooh” from the backing singers as an after effect. Immensely catchy.
Without Work You Have Nothing… back to a slower pace. The title would seem to suggest that a positive work ethic is good for the soul, in the same way that Oldham once sang about idle hands being the devil’s play thing. The word ‘work’ is used in at least two senses – the noun and verb sense of a job, but also in the verbal sense of working out or work it, work that thing baby, work it, “move your hands faster, that’s what your man wants,” and this will “keep his filthy mind from frequenting his soiled haunts.” But working might also mean working woman, or it might just be advice from the song’s narrator to his lover that as long as she works it, she’ll receive love on her body, she’ll “be bathed in light,” her bed will always be made for her, “war will be no more,” and as per the main chorus, “arms will hold you.” Seem a bit sexist? “Love to your buckets and honor on your father.” Something of a bigoted patriarchal theme emerging here? The song doesn’t particularly stand out much, though it still has a nice enough tune; the music is starting to sound a bit country generic by this stage. We hear another male vocal briefly, a spoken word section, telling us “Hand will clasp with hand, and tighten up their grip / Jaw will lock with jaw, and lip will lock with lip.” I guess the upshot is that if you work hard at your loving then “you will die with love upon you.”
Afraid Ain’t Me… is the song we need to be wary of, for the moral is mixed up and obfuscated amidst another shadowy kind of tune, lower, hidden, a tucked away at the end of the album kind of atmosphere. Momentarily it sounds like it might be a song of regrets, but it’s hard to imagine stoic Oldham in genuine regret mode though his singing here is clear and smooth. Nice tom-tom rhythm, snippets of pedal steel and violin blowing in from the side, a real autumnal feel. It seems he’s both won and been defeated in fights. He’ll offer himself up as a teacher for “your little ones,” coming as he does from a position of male/female, the xy chromosome incarnate. He asks to be treated well “when I come to your door,” and to be bathed and cleaned, washed of his fears and scalded in tears. And when the black one comes, no one shouts out his name, and when the white one comes, accusing him of treating love like a game, the one thing he’ll never be is afraid no matter how lonely he is. This is a fact, “cold and clear,” that gets repeated throughout the song while a quite beautiful flute blows in over top. And towards the end, all voices emerge for a victorious finale. Really beautiful addition that flute. Nice. So for all the masks and personas and multiplicity of subjectivity through which Oldham operates, and of which we the listeners barely understand, it may leave him lonely, but the bolder and stronger for it.
So it seems Oldham uses Beware to explore ideas about persona and identity and how these relate to one’s personal history through a dark and lamenting kind of prism, yet it’s mixed up with some genuine comic moments too, adding layers of depth. The album’s cover hints at this I think. I wasn’t so fussed on two or three tracks from side one, but that’s more an issue of personal taste. I’ve never dug stop-start pyrotechnics, they always come across as a bit phony. In some ways I’m glad to see the end of overtly mainstream country Oldham, as we’ll see on the next two more pared back efforts, The Wonder Show Of The World and Wolfroy Goes To Town.