This is at least the third book & music project Oldham’s been involved among his numerous collaborations, the first being Forest Time with photographer Erik Wesselo from 2002, then another in 2012 with artist Ashley Macomber called Afternoon.
For his song “Garden of Evil” Oldham offers us a fair interpretation of the picture book that comes with the record, or, sorry, the picture book that the record comes with. I bought it for the record, but the book and song go together so beautifully that you cannot separate them. That’s how I see Oldham’s poetry fitting against the flow of story in the book, his words fit the pictures almost literally, as best as able, and the melody is folk-simple, almost familiar, but not. Yet the book, pictures and words all remain deeply ambiguous−an Adam and Eve story laid out with a procreation twist buried among the worms, snakes, apples and a couple discovering that their bodies fit together in ways that symbolise two opposing modes of thought—lust and procreation. This is all imaged via aforesaid slithery creatures, snakes, tongues, worms, spoiled apples, death masks, babies and a non-opposing stance that presents a myth/creation story, albeit a very American-centric white Adam and Eve version for added gruesome effect. I do have a thing about Bible-myth mockery though, only insofar as I’m astounded that in 2015 there’s anyone who finds this kind of stuff art-worthy. And yet clearly there are, and I must be living in a vacuum, an isolation chamber when it comes to spiritual feeling among the general populace, who scare me. Thus Will Oldham contributing to a weird comic that recounts the Christian original-sin myth with bonus philosophical twist, just seems like old hat, the form of religo-satire/sincerity crossbreeding he’s been doing since 1993. Like, give us Will Oldham on 10:04 by Ben Lerner. Give us Will Oldham on Colm McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Give us Will Oldham on Paradise Lost. Anything but Genesis chapter 1, know wot I’m sayin’?
Still, wrapping the book up into 20 or so lines of interpretative poetry and being able to sing those lines beautifully is no small feat, and we must—really we must, we have no choice—but to commend the singer on his mode of presentation, plainness of song, his minimalist aesthetic, which keeps him edgy.
The theme present in “In The Garden of Evil” is one of anti-procreativity, and it somehow comes across as valid. In the pictures, the sexuality of the couple imaged in wiggly shapes is fraught with disease and ill omen, and as in Oldham’s lyrics, Adam & Eve’s offspring “turn against us” as if to suggest that we breed our own extinction merely by having kids. That’s a sensible observation, a sterile one if some people read it that way, but otherwise a mere cycle of life as observed in a once too-popular story that nonetheless continues to offer us an alternative rendering of the subject/object split that Lacanian theory places into our understanding of who we think we are as individuals. For you who have no idea what I just said – we’re forever trying to undo the loss or separation we felt as babes from the parent or womb by imaging our birth as a sin we’ve somehow committed. i.e. Eve bit the apple and we became separated from God, we split into subject/object, we developed self-consciousness. Ah, what agony.
The song opens with two or three plucked guitar strings, several times over, big gaps, and Oldham begins singing in a certain forlorn way that harks back to so many great recordings from his past. I love this merely for it being only guitar and voice, bringing to mind the 2013 album Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. The tune enacts a strong pull on your emotions, partly through its familiarity, partly through its simplicity, and Oldham’s way of singing, allowing the words to lift his voice as and where they need to take him, though always in a melancholy, disappointed or apologetic direction: “They’ve been at it two by forces / They’ll turn against us / We don’t have to own them / If we turn strongly towards the west,” and then later, “Leave the snake to the sky / And the baby to die / We’ll have fun / You and I.” Bruised, stoic, almost defiant in the way the melody asserts itself as something worth remembering yet is in no hurry to impress upon you. This is good stuff. This is only for a few of us. This is very much fan-based stuff, that raw-minded confidence, that sense that the song is in the song and not in the production. “Now my child don’t care about me,” sings Oldham forlornly yet reconciled to a reality that our offspring eat their old. My flexi has a lovely high quality of sound, but I notice after a few spins a bit of crackle appearing in the sound field.