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Best Album

i see a darkness—10   

             

Released: 1999    

1) a minor place  2) nomadic revery (all around 3) i see a darkness  4) another day full of dread  5) death to everyone  6) knockturne  7) madeleine-mary  8) song for the new breed  9) today i was an eveil one  10) black  11) raining in darling

 

Will Oldham has released albums credited to himself, to Palace Brothers, to Palace Songs, to Palace Music, to just plain Palace, and to the name he uses on this album, Bonnie “Prince” Billy.  His background is as guarded as the reasons why he keeps changing his stage name…there is not even any information about his birth date!  All that is known of his life is that he was raised in Kentucky, that he was a working actor in the late 1980s, that he “burst” on the music scene with a photograph credit on the Stint album, “Spiderland,” and that he began recording in 1992.    

 

i see a darkness,” his second album released under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, is an absolute classic.  A compellingly ominous listen that smoothers you in its haunting environment.  This isn’t the kind of music you dance to, although most of the songs do have catchy choruses…this isn’t the kind of music you have on in the background either.  This album is of the sort that doesn’t come around too often: one that needs to be played in its entirety and one that needs to be listened to alone.  All of the songs are sparse in arrangement and hallowing in lyrical content.  This is a drearier, less musical “Pink Moon,” but it might just be more gripping.  

   

The opening track, “a minor place,” is as delicate and hospitable as possible, the antithesis of the album cover in everyway.  Oldham sounds like a restrained Eddie Veder here and the background instruments and vocals only add to the tranquility.  I can’t figure out what the lyrics mean, but even with lines like “The scars of last year’s storm rest like maggots on my arm,” they still are able to make me feel welcomed.  nomadic revery (all around)” follows and slowly builds an unsettling folk atmosphere with more perfectly barren background vocals for a few verses.  But then out of nowhere a spine chilling, goose-bump-giving coda closes out the song…There are owls hooting Rolling Stones style in the background, the music is so full, the lyrics so desperate in their description of a one night stand, and I haven’t felt this way listening to music in too long…what an emotional landmark of an ending, and this is only the second song!

 

Amazingly, the title track is something even more though.  Something soul-cleansing, something pure, something so honest it scares me.  Simply put, it is the greatest song about friendship between two guys written.  It starts off at a snail’s pace, goes on for five minutes, and doesn’t pick up at all until the chorus…but that chorus…it absolutely flattened me the first ten times I heard it and I still have to push back the tears each time I listen, it describes the way I feel about my best friend so well.  After the first three songs I am as immersed in this album unlike any album I have ever heard.

 

another day full of dread” features that same haunting piano ballad style, but adds to the aura a raunchy, electric guitar solo and an oddly childlike sing along chorus.  The simple refrain is so disconcerting because the lyrics in the verse discuss how dread is inspiring and fear is amusing.  Damn.  death to everyone” is a faster tempo than the first four tracks, although it is still slow and wandering.  Tom Waits would be proud to write this song, it is that harrowing and tuneful.  “And since we know an end will come, it makes our living more fun…Death to everyone, is gonna come.”  At this point in the album I feel like I just ate about six pieces of cheesecake I’m so full. 

 

Following such a song is impossible, but Oldham sequenced the two-minute “knocktrune” here.  It features a similar inviting sound as the opening track, but deals with losing your virginity.  The disturbing thing is that the lyrics are so honest and the melody so quaint, but the overall tune sounds like a children’s song again.  Gross and creepy, but you can whistle along with it too.  madeleine-mary” comes pouring in next, as loud and obnoxious as punk relative to its company.  It is full of hooks and great drumming, and the lyrics are about an unobtainable girl.  The girl isn’t unobtainable because of her beauty though.  No, not on an album like this.  Madeleine Mary is off limits because she is evil or ugly or fucked in the head or a witch…we never really find out, and the tune makes it seem like no one actually knows what she is like.  The song would have fit well on the soundtrack to Blair Witch or Monster.

 

The next two songs are a little less compelling, but still offer intriguing possibilities.  song for the new breed” stays true to the formula of the album but has words written by Dianne Bellino (Oldham’s former director from his acting days) and lead guitar fills from David Pajo (of Slint).  It isn’t as memorable for me as the rest of the record but it is still an agitated song with a creepy atmosphere.  today i was an evil one” is a pure country, much more upbeat, with a horn section and chaotic fills.  The lyrics seem to be about a murder, but the tune belittles the act as nothing more than another passing day. 

 

black” is a traditional sounding guitar ballad about Oldham embracing the darkness the title suggests.  Its gloom and gradual acceptance is anything but soothing, yet it does offer the best melody of the second half of the record and even rivals the opening songs with its gentle charm.  The album closes with the short love ballad “raining in darling” in which Oldham tries to rekindle a lost flame by stepping out in the rain.  It is beautiful, and ends the album on a strangely uplifting note: "I know you love me...I know you do."  Interestingly, these last lines are not included on the lyric sheet of the album, maybe just too hopeful for an album of such darkness.  

 

Overall this album is a modern day classic and while some of the latter songs fail to inspire like the first numbers, taken as a whole, the record is nothing short of brilliant.  To be sure, it isn’t for everyone, and you can’t just put it on, on a whim…you have to be ready to listen, you have to have the lights low, and the rain on…you have to sit down and take it all in…the death, the sin, the forgiveness, the beauty, the eerie, the morbid joys of living.  Enjoy and tell a friend.

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