Bonnie Prince Billy, Mindlessness/Blindlessness 7”, 2015

mindlessness frontThis single doesn’t represent a whole lot of value for money for fans given that the A-side appears as it is on the Sailor’s Grave album. Means you’re paying seven bucks for a single song, though I suppose in fairness, it was ever thus, just not in the BPB world is all. “Mindlessness” originally appeared as a b-side called “Out Of Mind” on a 7” vinyl from 2012 called the b-sides for Time To Be Clear, which means it was the b-side of a single of b-sides. I never liked the pop-shiny production aesthetic much on that version, and this new one doesn’t float my boat either. The lyric is worthy of scrutiny though.

mindlessness labelMindlessness… for this new version Oldham countrifies the pace a little and jazzes the rhythm slightly, but it’s still fairly poppy with a bouncy beat and twinkly keyboard flourishes punctuating the beginnings and ends of verses to usher in female backing singers for a rousing chorus. Oldham sings it with more delicacy and more inventive syncopation. The lyric opens with a series of question, more philosophical and rhetorical than those of a man truly lost: “What was I saying? Where do I stand? Is that my voice praying? Am I still a man?” Perhaps the most telling of these questions is this one: “Why’s the world keep on shifting?” This suggests ideas like contingency and relativity, especially for one who’s made a career out of art and identity switching. And anyway, Oldham’s narrator answers his own question: “Nobody answers, the questions only fade / Well that’s okay, it’s best that way / It’s how new truths are made.” Indeed, those not busy being born are busy dying. Like Dylan does in concert, Oldham tweaks the original lyrics—words like “will” become “maybe,” the doctor has disappeared in this version, and instead of “life” giving him the union he imagines he might achieve by pretending it already exists, it’s now “God.” This might even signal a shift from him singing about a partner in the original to a self in this version. The lyrics here, though, like the lyrics to most Bonnie songs are fairly open to interpretation. There’s multiple ways to read them. What I offer in these write-ups is usually the first thing that comes to mind. I guess I’m only mentioning this now because this song is rather cryptic and I remember reading someone else’s take on it recently, a take which differed substantially from what I wrote for the “Out Of Mind” version. Generally, I would say that the song is about creating your own answers, creating your own life, while being out of mind, or mindless, is about creating new selves, welcoming in new subjectivities. As Oldham sings at the end of the song, “You are out of my mind and now so am I,” as if he’s waving goodbye not to one but two old selves, just as a new self is about to take over. The only thing I don’t like about this song is the way the melody is comprised of two quite different rhythmic modes between verse and chorus. I find it a bit weak, not satisfying. It could have been improved if the rhythm had been freed up completely as in the next song…

mindlessness labelBlindlessness… opens with the pensive notes of Nick Drake’s “Black Eyed Dog” before moving into the opening line, “I can’t see what I am doing” and then bringing a dog into the picture: “It’s like a dog is standing on my face.” The intertextuality of those opening notes brings us into a much darker place; Drake’s dog was a harbinger of death. Oldham’s voice is deep in echo here, with just an acoustic guitar and low bass for company. It’s a vastly different sound to the A-side song. There’s a little dog yapping away too, somewhere in the studio. The song floats in a dark space, unanchored from a beat. There’s no credit information on the sleeve, so I don’t know who else is adding their voice on the occasional line, but it’s effective. I don’t much go in for translating symbolism, though I don’t go in for literalism either—I don’t know or care what the “dog” in this song might be. As Murakami says, a thing in fiction is simply that thing, and the emotional thrust of the piece comes from the reader imagining what it would be like having a dog stand on your face. The thing about Oldham’s dog-on-face is that it’s not heavy enough for him to “give in.” This is a rather odd song. The narrator wants to be able to give in to his emotions, but can’t because he’s too hard-hearted. He envies those who win when things get heaviest, but our bonnie narrator has no such luck, and luck has no truck with him. He would like to be able to suffer under a weight “others … love to wear,” but can’t seem to see far enough or delve deep enough into his emotions. So why “blindless”? Good question. “Blindless” doesn’t suggest vision so much as a different kind of blindness to that of a traditionally blind person. You wouldn’t use “blindless” to describe someone who can see. It suggests the kind of emotional blindness this narrator suffers under because he sees too much. Oldham rewards fans with these kinds of song on the b-side of his singles, because they often seem more emotionally naked, the non-music industry side of the record. As the song progresses, it gets ever quieter, the notes sparser, further apart, and the song just kind of disintegrates before your eyes, having distracted your attention. That’s clever. Great song.

mindlessness backA curious thing that Drag City took not one, not two, but three singles off the Sailor’s Grave album, not to promote it, a little side earner surely. “We’re going to need a couple of extra grand to do project X–let’s put out another Bonnie single.” The last time such blatant commercialism happened in the Bonnie camp was 2006 for the The Letting Go album. Here’s to what else 2015 brings.

About Alan Bumstead Vinyl Reviews

Alan Bumstead is a music fanatic who humbly adds confusion to the world with a string of album reviews written during real-time-listening in a stream-of-consciousness style, then edited for spelling, punctuation, flow and grammar. Apart from an additional introductory paragraph, the writing is improvised in time with the music. There is no re-writing. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- In his book Moving To Higher Ground Wynton Marsalis says, "Because jazz musicians improvise under the pressure of time, what's inside comes out pure. It's like being pressed to answer a question before you have a chance to get your lie straight. The first thought is usually the truth." I like to think that's what Alan Bumstead's all about.
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