BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 05 MAY 99
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Issue 46

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

BY Jennifer Higgie in Reviews | 05 MAY 99

The first song I ever heard by Will Oldham - aka Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - was on a compilation tape a friend sent me from the other side of the world. It was winter and I was living in a big, cold room in a big cold city, feeling pretty lonely. Singing as if he were choking back tears, Oldham obliquely gave shape to thoughts that were possessing me but which I was too lethargic to articulate: the line 'I'd be riding horses if they'd let me' seemed to be less about horses than about a mysterious limiting 'they'. Fluctuating between a sob, a wail and a brave falsetto and accompanied by a band who sounded as if they were slowly but surely collapsing, he sounded almost comical, but comical in the miserable way confusion and heartache often is.

Singing about a stumbling and often disorientated journey through a dissolute mental wasteland, Oldham, from Louisville, Alabama sounds like a cowboy forced to lived in a high-rise. Skies and mountains and animals who bite and roam fill his songs, but only after they've been dragged through inner city alleys and sacrificed in bars: 'your deep growl, your high whine, the uneven way you move, your pure heart, your love, the lord made you to prove something' (Song for the New Breed).

The titles of the eleven tracks on 'I See a Darkness'(1999), with their faux gothic overtones, mock Oldham's predilection for tribulation: Another Day Full of Dread, Death to Everyone, Today I was an Evil One. But the songs, despite their shadowy undertones, are rarely depressing: Death to Everyone, is a life affirming celebration of sex, where the inevitability of death erotically charges the possibilities of living - not exactly a new idea, but one which seems to give Oldham a lot of pleasure: 'Death to everyone is gonna come and it makes hosing so much fun...'

There are moments when Oldham's singing on 'I See a Darkness' - leisurely, intimate and anxious - is reminiscent of a good friend telling you secrets on a walk. At other times he retreats so far into himself, it's as if he's sleep-talking or lost in thought, conjuring the odd connections and disjunctions of a deep reverie. A desire for peace rubs constantly against a hankering for chaos ('dread and fear should not be confused, by dread I'm inspired, by fear I'm amused...'). Soporific guitars string words and pauses together, emphasising the spaces between sounds as they express inert but heartfelt responses to the minutiae of human interaction with a deep despondency that never - thanks to his constant wrestling with the idea of change or transition or word play - becomes maudlin. The drumming is indolent and mesmerising, and although right on beat feels like it's holding the music back, forcing restraint on a feeling that could too easily spiral out of control. This is music you imagine being acoustic, even when it's plugged in.

Sensing rain on the brightest of days, Oldham often employs run-of the-mill religious images - god, redemption, forgiveness, evil - although it's a religion not so much about received ideology as an acknowledgement of the mysteries that split and bind a hesitant passage through the world. But despite its melancholy, the album also contains some of the sweetest and oddest love songs I've heard - when love happens to Oldham, it's a fractured, almost surreal occurrence: 'someone mawed and put my cock in, corner-eyed I saw it lock in, twisters rolled and no-one walked in, and only love was learned...' he sings gently on Knockturne.

As if he's nervous about any kind of closure, Oldham has changed the names he performs under so often that trying to find his CDs in a big music shop is like looking for a truffle in a desert. He's been Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Wayne Olephant, Push, Little Willy Bukgakov, Pushkin Will and Prince William, while his various bands have been Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Ice vs Palace, Box of Chocolates, The Sundowners, Rising Shotgun, The Anomoanon and The Boxhead Ensemble. Trying to pin down his influences is equally perplexing: it's hard to think of anyone else who comes from a Country tradition, who writes serious songs about the travails of a lonely psyche and then titles them like an homage to Zappa: You Have Cum in Your Hair and Your Dick is Hangin Out (from 'Arise Therefore', 1996) or the Spider's Dude is Often There (from 'Little Blue Eyes', 1996), for example.

Some music brings a world you've never visited right into your house, and reassuringly makes you feel as if it's somewhere you've been at home in for quite a while. Good with silence and imaginative about confusion 'I See a Darkness' is the perfect drinking buddy - songs to retreat into when you feel like retreating into yourself, but when, deep down, you know you wouldn't mind someone else coming along for the ride.

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.