After the inward-looking Beware with its odd mix of comedy, philosophical meandering and identity-developing in a dark room to a country tune of pedal steel guitars, guimbris, marimbas, mandolins, flutes, saxes, banjos, cornets and accordions, we now get back to some lovely simple acoustic guitars, lightly padded drums and canoeing-music choirs with a lot more light in the spaces. Yet, it’s not an album with any strongly discernable sense of theme, as BPB albums often are. Although if I was pushed to choose something, I might guess at aging, getting on. Side One is the more overtly melodious, while Side Two becomes very quiet and contemplative, very beautiful, but also a little bit ice queen spooky, a little bit medieval, a little bit freak-folk meets post-apocalyptic cult. The title of the album might reflect this; “The wonder show of the world,” indeed, because this is a wonder show, as in “I wonder what Oldham’s singing about?” That kind of wonder. Does he even know himself? As one who shovels words together in a creative way myself, I understand the way writing comes back to haunt you, in that your original intention sometimes doesn’t bear up against later interpretations.
After thinking about the lyrics for a bit and then listening closely to the music it (rather slowly) dawned on me how much this album has in common with both Superwolf and The Letting Go, which is why I’ve ended up loving it so much more than either Beware and Lie Down In The Light, both excellent albums in their country-pop way, but Oldham’s better when he’s a bit spooky and sad. Actually, even though the album has a strongly cohesive feel to the tone and volume of the songs, in some ways, this is one of his most varied collections yet, stealing a little bit from all over the BPB catalogue and adding an awesome soul vibe. Let her rip…
Troublesome Houses… is a nice way to open an album—a warm low-lit acoustic guitar affair, a light underwater drum and a whimsical windy melody in support of the unregretful tale of a chap who visits “troublesome houses” and can’t keep away from them to save himself, if he needed saving that is. His girl couldn’t dig it, “she could taste trouble on my mouth,” and it seems he lost his whole family owing to this addiction to trouble. Troublesome houses, while obliquely suggesting brothels, might just mean trouble of many different kinds, casinos say, tinny houses, or whatever. Trouble follows him such that “quiet eludes” him and he has to “face the evils that follow us.” But despite his self-awareness and recognition that his habits for trouble bring no solace, he ends up losing everyone, still doing “all my moving” in troublesome houses. So, it’s ultimately a morality tale with no moral. We don’t really know where he ends up, this chap. The vocals suit the guitar melody nicely, with Shaszad Ismaily singing a kind of falsetto support just behind Oldham’s equally high and lightly pitched vocal. The song builds to several little dramas which are released and built again. Beautiful understated opener, and that’s saying nothing given how much understatement this album indulges in.
Teach Me To Bear You… this also seems to be a song of regret. The song ends with the lines, “my hands are empty / And my throat cracked and drawn,” and this is because someone had given him a piece of paper with their name written on it. He kept it in his pocket for years but instead of cherishing this gift, he’s gone and slipped it into someone else’s pocket, and then, to make matters worse, he “sang away the name.” Thus we get a chorus in which he asks this person, “won’t you teach me to bear you?” One can only assume he means this in a regretful or apologetic way; she or he has become a burden, and it seems he’s treated her life story too lightly, wanting “to read you a life of parties and wisdom, of care and explosions and wild summer eves.” I get the feeling this song relates to some distant past, some old half-forgotten memory that’s surfaced to haunt the Bonnie narrator. The music here is minimalist in the old Palace Joya–era vein, a couple of different sounding electric guitars ‘talking’ to each other, but whence the song gets into itself proper, there are some lovely harmonies of the echo chamber variety. It’s all very slow, and towards the end, this harmonizing suddenly becomes intense, stop-time, Oldham in dramatic Superwolf mode. It’s not a very immediate track, but between gorgeous chorus, pointillistic detailed guitar dynamics and Oldham’s lightly emotive wailing, this is totally Superwolf part II.
With Cornstalks Or Among Them… is an absolute stunner, quietly beautiful, sounding not unlike Fleet Foxes with the choirboy backing vocal section. Musically it adheres to the same effective formula as the previous song. Textural electrics, an elaborately arranged vocal pattern between Oldham and his backing selves/singers. The singing style, a wailing lament gives the impression that the narrator is a woman singing about her man, who, like the chap in “Troublesome Houses,” or the fellow in “Let’s Start A Family” often does not come home. Or has he passed away? “Where were you again tonight?” she pines, and the choir answers “with cornstalks or among them.” She believes they can be happy again if he’d only come back, or if she could just go out and find him among the cornstalks. Halfway through, I think, though I can’t be sure—and there’s nothing to necessarily suggest it should be so—the narrative point of view switches to the fellow, who thinks it’s strange that she still loves him, and wants to know, “Will you love me if I change?” Or maybe it’s still the woman singing. Or maybe the voices have merged, as they sing of the different lives they’ve had before. “There was one life with you before, and one life more, and one life more.” Song is gorgeous. Best so far.
The Sounds Are Always Begging… a sweetly melodic number, one of my favourites here, seems to celebrate the joy, communion and healing power of music through a highly figurative story-song told by a husband about his … um … family. This is encouraged along by a very simple shuffle-beat and guitar strum, an easy-to-love melody and a whining tone, along with Oldham’s entertaining lyric, pop smarts, and his dry, high, flowery voice carrying the smooth tune. It’s not all light and cheer though. In this family the “wife turned crazy on me one day / Started chopping up the bed,” and she continued to haunt the home until the kids went crazy too, and it seems all Dad had left was music to keep the family together. “I taught the children to play piano / Singing with sweet voice,” and soon “melody fostered choice,” and because choice brought rejoicing, his advice shall be, “Always choose the noise of music / Always end the day in singing.” The singing Dad seems to refer to someone called Conway, and we think of early rockabilly and country legend Conway Twitty. Part of the chorus refers to a lot of pleading and begging, for what end? “To be heard and had and carried on.” And later, the joyfulness of playing music is carried in a similar line, “And bounce and boil and bounce and boil and bounce and boil and plead and beg.” In the end, “without us, song is nothing,” which would fit the theme of the Ask Forgiveness EP nicely. I fear there might be some crucial bit of information I’m missing here, something outside the text, because I get the feeling the song relates to some historical perspective that may or may not be connected to the Conway reference. In any case, this is the most instantly likeable number on Wonder Show, but it has something of a classic feel, as though it was huge in the sixties. Listen for the ding of the typewriter at song-end.
Go Folks, Go… is another celebratory song, even more so this time, though it revisits the theme found in songs like John Prine’s “In Spite Of Ourselves,” which Oldham covered with Susanna on 7” single in 2009, and a touch of “You Don’t Love Me,” on Beware in the same year, though here without the humour of those two songs. The song is all about its rhythm, a slow rocking-boat kind of thing, shunting back and forth, a three steps forward, two steps back kind of affair, with little oomphs and pulses, yet it’s back-porch stuff, especially with the wonderful line, “Here I is, all thin and balled up.” Reminds me of the cousin at the end of Tobias Woolf’s superb short story, Bullet In The Brain. The narrator is in love, he “ain’t hemmed in” and he “ain’t walled up,” but he is “free and … loving you,” and better still, unlike numerous Oldham narrators before him, this one says, “I’m not leaving, I ain’t going.” She don’t mind his swelling chest and his snoring nose, “it’s all okay by you.” He seems genuinely surprised to be so welcome in this woman’s home, happy to do around-the-house jobs like washing walls and painting windows. A happy chap with “friends like I never thought I’d do.” Although there’s a line in here which makes me suspicious of his sincerity; after mentioning how welcome he feels, he says, “I’d a never thunk, would you?” as if to suggest all the bubbly freedom he’s singing about is one big lie, and this gets carried into the final lines where a god “will guide us to our graves, smiling, singing.” Then we get the title-track chorus, “Go folks! Go forth! Trust your brain! Trust your body!” which, looked at on paper starts to seem a little like sarcasm, except that these lines are repeated over and over in a way that is almost gospel, Oldham allowing his voice to crack, the backing singers echoing his words. A great way to end side one. The song tends to linger in your mind long after the needle’s left the groove, probably a result of the playful and improvised repetition.
That’s What Our Love Is… brings us back to an acoustic guitar melody, a touch of bass, and a quiet reflective Oldham vocal. The songs consist of one lover singing advice to his partner in long flowing couplets with end rhyme. Or maybe it’s just some dude singing his advice to the rest of us out of personal experience. Somebody’s not been having a good time though, especially as evidenced in the first two lines – “Don’t go to bed if you know that something’s waiting to grab you in the night and throttle hope from your heart / Don’t close your eyes if the ills are fornicating and conceiving of an evil to break you from the start.” There’s a couple more lines, one about it being good to revive laughter and remember the song of loving, and in the main refrain, Oldham prefers his partner play with him, and that they should sleep outside, “our heads on shoulders,” because, as Oldham has said in interview, sleeping outside represents one of the greatest freedoms, something he sang about way back in 1994 on the “Horses” single. The chorus, “No, stay and play with me,” gets stretched out airily, all seventies soft rock vibe with just a hint of country. The song ends with a plea to remain together during the “end times” and then objectively correlates being together with “the smell of your box on my moustache or a crossword on our mind.” Always good to get some oral sex into a song before the love runs out of steam and the tune ends. I’m reminded of the track “Ease Down The Road” from the album of same name. The melody is soulful, early 70s soulful, Aaron Neville perhaps, but it wins your ears with its slow teasing build, and really, Oldham’s falsetto carries you along with the best lines Marvin Gaye never sang. We get some lovely pitter-pattered toms, like rain, and echoes; smells like nostalgia.
Merciless and Great… reminds me most of The Letting Go style of minimalist melody and solo voiced ambiance, as well as a more Irish/Scottish feel to the melody, yet just as beautiful and held just as captive to a decade in the past as “That’s What Our Love Is” was. While the lyrics are linearly sensible, it’s hard to say exactly what the song’s about. There’s a religious theme entering though in the accumulation of certain biblical-sounding phrases such as “In this building I meet other followers of your word,” “In my room, without you now, Lord,” and “Be forgiving, wisdom-doling, merciless and great.” There are times you get the feeling Oldham’s more of a form poet than a content one, by which I mean, this song feels like a collection of 18 statements or questions only loosely related. Oldham strings ‘em together with a melody, the listener works out an interpretation, though again, only a very loose one, because the lines only hint rather vaguely at ideas or themes which never quite solidify through the whole song. We get sex and love themes here with the accumulation of certain other phrases such as “let my firmness bend,” “Does she taste as sweet as she is to me in her love?” and “Can I hold her through the wicked storm…?” But each line is sung in a high-voiced meandering kind of way, a little spooked even, and towards the end, things get louder, more thespian, a kind of structure Oldham seems to use across the whole album. This song ends up seeming like a dream, being made as much of questions as it is of statements. The ‘she’ figure is a mystery, who might turn her eye upon the narrator, or lay her “lengthy finger” on his hair, and then fear comes, and fire comes too, to char us, and take us home. So what’s that all about? It carries a sense of hellfire and redemption and the desire to be chosen: “Single me out from the others,” pleads Oldham’s narrator to his God of music, his muse.
Where Wind Blows… is a song of unknowing, the title itself suggesting a fairly vague kind of setting, “from here where wind blows,” meaning what exactly? From where does the wind blow? And the music begins very faintly, an improvised feel, sparse bits of acoustic and bass guitar, as though the song is made of smoke getting blown into puffs and fragments and wisps. “There’s nothing I’m sure of,” sings the narrator, but he is happy to have “faith to soar” and “strength to fly.” At one point he makes a request, or issues an order, loudly, in that building way, “Say I’m your lover.” One line I do like – “Wind has worn from me hostility.” Then he wants to know “What’s wrong with me?” and “What do you think of me?” and even, “Why do you think of me?” He seems vaguely flabbergasted that “you” – lover, would choose to be with him, when “A hundred guys would kill to be walking beside you here.” This sounds a little like the Oldham of Master And Everyone, only this time instead of leaving her, or denying culpability, he’s sounding a little insecure, hence the unsteady unstructured nature of the music. Umpteen listens doesn’t really reveal much of a melody. For me, between lyrics and music, it’s the weakest number here. Drifts by too easily, without an identity of its own, meaning it sounds too much like bits and pieces of better songs here.
Someone Coming Through… is just plain scary, sort of cultish and lyrically weird, with a simple but striking slow melody that once you’ve heard it a few times, pulls you into its melancholy grasp. Acoustic guitar supports several male voices singing Gregorian chant-like in a cave. Between Oldham’s mournfully high and fragile vocal, and that repeated descending guitar arpeggio, the song has quite a powerful melancholy impact. But the lyrical weirdness stems from the plural first person, “We.” And so this “we” are like feral humans hiding from some “he” figure who is coming soon to walk among us. He is “known to sit in a certain room, pained by what he’s seen we have done.” There’s only a few lines, and in the end, “it is now for us to do everything he tells us to do.” So the narrator of the song, seems to have given over, along with others, his volition, to this “someone coming through,” and again, it sounds vaguely apocalyptic, or freakishly religious, like a bunch of nuns preparing for some kind of sacrifice. Certainly an affecting song and definitely the spookiest number on the album.
Kids… one imagines Oldham enjoys taking on roles, and this is another particular singer-songwriter kind of stance he adopts here. I say ‘stance’ because of what Oldham’s been, done and sang on past albums, and so it’s hard to know when he’s in true voice and when he’s trying a new voice on, and I suppose it doesn’t really matter; in the end, in 20 years say, when we won’t know any longer, Oldham himself won’t even remember what was mask and persona and what might have been true, and all we’ll have left is the song, a very minimalist affair devoid of a tune. “Kids, I hope in 20 years I can sing this song,” and later, “Kids, I hope in years to come I will be strapped to the movement of time in a such a way that this still makes sense.” Perhaps he’s singing about the relativity of time, the way time warps and bends according to how old you are. Like, doesn’t time go faster when you’re older? And doesn’t time intensify and maybe slow down, when you’re approaching death? In any case, the narrator seems to be addressing “kids” though whether his own, or just kids in general is not clear and he’s afraid of how they’ll view him in 20 years time. Musically the song has little clear structure, with semi-improvised vocal melodies, shifting acoustic guitar, harmonies, and little in the way of memorable tune. A very short song, contemplative. Quite a lovely fiddly … sudden end.
While not quite as majestic as Superwolf or The Letting Go or Ask Forgiveness – that amazing run of albums in the mid-2000s, and a relatively short album after the 12 or 13 songs on each of BPB’s 2008 and 2009 efforts, Wonder Show is right up there as one of his best of the decade for the sheer solemnity and subtle beauty hidden in the grooves. This is yet another Oldham album I’ll never tire of hearing. I remember Uncut magazine making Jack White man of the decade, and thinking huh? Will Oldham’s had an incredible decade. I suppose Wonder Show can be considered to be kicking off the second decade of the century. Next album, in a similarly low-key vein, would be 2011’s Wolfroy Goes To Town, the only Oldham album I’ve listened to umpteen dozen times and still can’t quite remember any of it. It’ll be interesting to see what a close listening Bumstead session will reveal… watch this space.