BONNIE 'PRINCE' BILLY
Palace Brothers' debut single Ohio River Boat Song (1993) appeared, out of nowhere, sharing space with cover stars and perennials such as PJ Harvey and The Fall, in the top 5 of John Peel’s Festive Fifty in 1993. Sounding careworn, detached, yet oddly aggressive the song introduced Will Oldham's voice to an audience not known to relish the sound of the rural backwoods as imagined by a twenty one year old in the company of two former members of Slint. The debut Palace Brothers album that followed There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You (1993) included song titles such as "Idle Hands are the Devils Playthings" and "Oh Lord are You in Need?" This was an unknown, foreign, if not radical, aesthetic at a time when terms like alt country or Americana hadn't been configured, let alone joined by nu-folk, as catch all terms for mollifying, mortgage comfort music. Today a juxtaposition of a Gram Parson CD reissue and a passing acquaintance with Nick Drake' BEBEBE tunings will get you a spot at a boutique festival.
Upon their release, the first Palace recordings sounded almost hostile in their strange, broken lyricism. On these records Oldham sounds like he is exploring something biblical and untenable. The empty spaces in his songs are really empty - not epic, poetic or windswept. He sounds informed by the silences in John Huston films or by Peter Bogdanovich's decision to film The Last Picture Show in black and white.
Days In The Wake (1994) from its blurred cover image of Oldham to its set of songs commencing with "When You Have No One, No One Can Hurt You" is a personal, perhaps autobiographical album. As much as the first person narrative of the lyrics, it's the sound of Oldham's shirt buttons scraping on his guitar and his off-mic breathing that lends the record a field recording quality.
Viva Last Blues (1995) is a band record of high rolling, lick heavy rock. The Mountain Low's Cali-rock groove is interrupted by Oldham's thoughts on how to ''fuck a mountain''. "Work Hard / Play Hard" might be described as "Workingman's Palace." A decade before pedal steel and Les Pauls' were part of the free freak paradigm Oldham was kicking his heels and sounding high on the hog.
Arise, Therefore (1996) which reunites producer Steve Albini with a drum machine, has as much punch in the face intensity as any Big Black album. Ably demonstrated by song titles alone: "You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick is Hanging Out," "Disorder," and "Give Me Children." The songs are at times almost gnostic in their intensity, the cliche of the backwards (literally) carnality of the hicks in Deliverance is turned into an Old Testament style parable as if the devil was writing his own version of the Bible: "fuck him over there, fuck him with something..." At times Oldham sounds as though he's been dispensed to spread worry and self hate across the land, and this recording fulfils the obligation. Very few people have made beauty and disgust combine like this - perhaps no one has done without laying their soul bare. In a body of work where the authorial name, voice and identity are constantly shifting Arise, Therefore is Oldham at his most cut off and detached, inhabiting a strange person with a strange voice living in strange times.
Joya (1998) was credited to Will Oldham. By now second-guessing or asking why a release was credited to either Palace, Palace Music, Brothers or Songs was a guaranteed waste of time. Recorded quickly in Chicago the record may yet be given a retrospective, lost classic cachet, it sounds mercurial, liquid and distinguished and in some ways atypical. I See a Darkness (1999) is the first album released by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, the nomenclature that continues to find Oldham at his most sonically alluring. "Madeline-Mary" and "Death to Everyone" are melodic, almost groovy and beautifully deathly. Johnny Cash famously recorded the title track with Oldham duetting on the chorus, the drinking buddy archetype of the song given new gravitas and new meaning. This blue chip and blue-collar approval and a readiness to tour offered Oldham almost mainstream access. If there is a difference between the music of Palace and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy it's in the depth and detail of sound, and how Oldham has turned his voice into an astonishing and confident instrument that allows the musicians around him to flourish.
Ease Down The Road (2001) saw a return to carnal concerns but was laced with a romantic, intimate and carefree spirit and a remarkably warm and effortless production. For an introduction to his work, in many ways, this is Oldham at his most accessible. True to form, the songs are at their most lustful when detailing infidelity and what, exactly, happens in which orifice. By now Oldham was cover star material, but the few stories that ran were about how the interview didn't pan out the way the writer envisaged and the accompanying photos were of the back of Oldham's head. Like his head back delivery when singing live and disarmingly bon vivant stage presence - it all makes sense.
Master & Everyone (2004) signalled a return to the private. Recorded quietly its songs, detailing loss and the breakdown of relationships, are astonishingly intimate and intense. The album cover shows Oldham in profile; tinted in almost sepia hues he looks like Jesse James or General Custer. It seems pointless to reconcile the image with the music. Both are worlds apart from anything else. There is a tenderness and fragility to Oldham's singing on this record that can stop you in your tracks. Oldham has always collaborated, in his early recordings with David Pajo and Sean O'Hagan and throughout with his brother Paul often engineering or producing. His canon is littered with compilations and one-off releases. Anyone who has yet to hear the trilogy of "West Palm Beach," "Gulf Shores" and "End of Travelling" on Lost Blues Vol. 1 is urged to do so at once.
Superwolf (2005), a collaboration between Oldham and Matt Sweeney of Chavez and Zwan was a remarkable configuration.
The Letting Go (2006), the fourth Bonnie 'Prince' Billy album is the extraordinary combination of a songwriter at the height of his powers, a duet style production that allows Faun Fables' Dawn McCarthy to counterpoint with Oldham and the beautifully judged accompaniment of a string section. Loss, Love, Grief, Wonder. The record is widescreen, magical. Listening to it is like someone asking you to help explain his or her dreams. Whatever he does next only he ever knows; but get to know him and this Bonnie lad will confound and enthral, leaving you enraptured in his riches.
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