Bonnie 'Prince' Billy: I See A Darkness
Feb 20, 1999
I SEE A DARKNESS, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Spunk!)
Who is Will Oldham? Over the past decade he has released eight albums and EPs under a subtly shifting array of guises: Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music, Palace, and now, inexplicably, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. It is as though this native of Louisville, Kentucky, believed to be in his late twenties, knows he’s doing something dangerous and forbidden and is taking care not to be caught. He slips in quietly on one or other indie label, then leaves quickly, covering his tracks. When he visited New Zealand a couple of years ago for a few gigs with local country-grungers the Renderers, promotion was so low-key that even some fans missed it.
Though the word ‘accessible’ must be anathema to him, his newest album is a good place for Oldham neophytes to start. His music is as elusive as his nomenclature. It could be the work of an Appalachian shape-note singer, or perhaps an Elizabethan troubadour; it just feels old. The tunes are plain, made interesting by the seemingly uncontrollable cracks and ululations that mark Oldham’s almost-whispered singing. The instrumentation is minimal; acoustic guitar, sparse piano, a neutral rhythm section. Yet, on closer inspection, there’s no evidence that he is consciously recreating any musical past. When a gentle fog of sound settles behind his bucolic backing, it is minutes before one realises that this is an electric guitar feeding back. And once you get past the quaint archaisms of his language (“I cannot get close to thee”, “No one else could e’er have stole me”) it becomes clear that the narrator isn’t some imagined nineteenth century rafe, but Oldham himself, singing firmly in the present tense.
What he does have in common with the hillbilly poets and early English balladeers, though, is his commitment to illuminating the harsher elements of human experience. He writes of blood, sex, death and dread, not in the extravagant and theatrical strokes of heavy metal, but in the matter-of-fact manner of the Childe ballads or the blues. So when he sings of the darkness that threatens him, the impulse to do evil, or the inexorable advance of death, it is far more stark and disturbing than any death-dabbling shock rocker, because it is so quietly believable. “Today was another day full of dread/but I never said I was afraid/Dread and fear should not be confused/By dread I’m inspired, by fear I’m amused”, goes one song. Forget about Napalm Death and Cannibal Corpse, this is where the real chills are.