This final Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy 7” for 2014 has Oldham performing a song by Alexis Taylor (of the English band Hot Chip) on the A-side while Taylor plays a Palace song from the Arise Therefore album on the B-side. Back in 2010 Hot Chip (not a band I’m fond of) produced a dance single called “I Feel Better” with three remixes, one of which had Oldham singing along to a version called “I Feel Bonnie.” Presumably Taylor and Oldham kept in touch and so here they come together on one of these Bonnie singles where both sides are somehow loosely connected via title or theme. In this case, battlefields, soldiers, defeat, weakness.
Am I Not A Soldier?… is some kind of plea from one lonely soul to another, his brother, or perhaps just brother-in-arms, pleading to be reunited: “I’ve not heard your voice in such a long time … But we don’t die / There’s more to us than meets the eye,” sings Oldham, with that beautiful high voice he reserves for these delicate acoustic numbers. It seems the singer wants to “make song” once more with his former friend and is curious about the future, about what will happen to the songs they once made together. In the chorus Oldham repeats a line lamenting that he’s “no soldier,” and questioning himself, “Am I not a soldier?” A fellow called David Ferguson joins in for the chorus thereby thickening the theme as both voices meet and unite on the melody. The association between the singer’s concerns about (1) his lack of soldiership and (2) his companion-in-song, hinges on the idea that one must keep on keeping on, strive, march, not give up, even though a division between the brothers has occurred in the past. “We build a wall, it deepens with sound / And now we’re so hard to get around,” he sings referring to some blockage, but there’s hope in the lines, hope that “as we two grow older” he might be reunited so they can soldier on together, and after they’ve left this world, their work might be discovered by others. Thus, the main connotation of ‘soldier’ in this song is its verb form, “to soldier (on),” as in not give up, and the answer to the question posed in the title is a rhetorical “no I am no soldier, but I will soldier on.” These words are sung along to a richly recorded acoustic guitar, replete with chirpy fret-scrape. The melody is generally wistful, a little dreamy, melancholy, but hopeful. Matt Sweeney joins on the chorus too towards the end, adding his feminine falsetto notes and just briefly, magic is achieved.
The Weaker Soldier… I found this a difficult song to analyze in my first effort when writing about the Arise Therefore album a couple of years ago but this time, after nearly three years of perusing Oldham’s songs in detail, I feel somewhat more qualified to pass judgment. It’s a song about weakness, yes, about a fellow who left the war “like an ape, folded neatly in four,” and who feels because of this that he is now “not fit to carry [the] name” of his lover, and “not willing to go on.” Hence, it acts as counterpoint to the A-side in that this is somewhat less hopeful, anti-climactic, defeatist. The narrator-war veteran feels exposed, has cried and shouted, and ended up depressed in “this black kettle of oneness.” So like the narrator of the A-side, he feels alone, separated from his companion-in-arms, but in this case, he can’t overcome his shame, which is why in the final verse we hear him encouraging a comrade to take his “girl.” This calls to mind the B-side to the recent “New Black Rich (Tusks)” single, where in the song “Black As Grace” a fallen soldier laments his losses. The theme of the weak soldier also features in the Oldham song, “Major March” from 2002, off the Amalgamated Sons Of Rest EP. The music here is solo piano, with the high and slightly plummy tones of Alexis Taylor. Nick Forgacs joins on the chorus, singing just behind Taylor, although there’s an uneven, shaky feel to their voices, and while it’s nice enough, it sounds a bit amateurish after the beauty of Sweeney and Oldham’s combined voices, though there are touching moments such as Taylor on the line, “With a hand yellowed, smooth, and shaking.” This has a simple but pretty tune, set in a minor key mood of resignation.
If you were to look at the covers of this and the three preceding 7” Bonnie singles, you couldn’t help noticing the plain white cardboard sleeves. A fad for the times? The next single arrives in late January, 2015, “Mindlessness,” also from Sailor’s Grave-A Sea Of Tongues.