And yet Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Palace Brothers, aka Palace Music, has been singing these songs for more than two decades, and whether his purpose is found still remains only in the hearing of the listener.
Oldham’s back catalogue is an intimidating place to navigate. With an extreme work ethic and a prolific output to match, it can be difficult to truly know everything he has done. I have listened to more of his albums and collaborations than those of any single artist and still have only heard about a quarter of what I know is out there. And then this comes along, a deep, dark, cavern treasure from the days when John Peel still ruled the weird waves and Will Oldham was already being weird with a guitar and defying category. Maybe that’s why this music is so engaging. There is never a moment when I think, “Oh, yeah, I know what this is” — without that knowing being a deeply gratifying sense that he has done it again and produced another record that I know will be on endless loop.On this record are collected tracks from three of the six sessions recorded by Oldham as Bonnie “Prince” Billy and also under his Palace Brothers moniker. Anyone of a certain age will be familiar with the Peel Sessions from John Peel’s BBC Radio One show. I always liked the particular sound of the Peel Sessions; cleaner than a live show, but with the rawness of the immediacy that comes with a live recording, yet without excessive production or tidying. What is produced in this context is a collection of songs that are at once familiar and new; like visiting an old friend from the past, recognising them, seeing how they are changed, yet containing all versions simultaneously. Of course, this is not to say that this album does not stand up alone. In fact, the recognisability of the songs might be a disadvantage if they are favourites, perhaps even disconcerting. But Bonnie “Prince” Billy is renowned for turning out new versions of old songs in other formats. Many of his songs appear in different versions on different albums, and in the many guises he takes in his singing and acting personae, it is impossible to not be impressed at the versatility of his songwriting and musicianship — that his tightly imagined vessels are so malleable, so mutable, is impressive and strangely reassuring. There is a confidence that comes with knowing the message of the thing well enough to be unafraid to make it new, and perhaps allow it to convey a new message.
The broken-voiced delivery on “I was Drunk at the Pulpit” is the kind of opening that leads you by the hand. Oldham makes the kinds of sounds that tell you about a place you know and have forgotten. Sometimes you forget for a long time, or just between each track. The flawless guitar and the flow of the vocal make it possible to believe this drunken narrative and inhabit both the perspective of the narrator and the audience — this is magic. It is possible to hear every hollow resound of each plucked guitar string. “Death to Everyone”, a favourite from Master and Everyone, delivered here so clean and without the artifice of other more polished versions, reminds me of Bob Dylan‘s “Wedding Song” in tone, with a beauty that is less obvious on other recordings, the lyric poetry a foil to the agony of ecstatic melody.The unplugged clarity of all these recordings bring to the fore the complexity of the songs, rendered in their most plain forms, they take on new personae. All the sexual allegory and mundanity of death conveyed in the narrative cannot overcome the fire and force of the refrain from a guitar strummed so hard you know that being alive is the thing. The same might be said for the fierce “Arise Therefore”, a powerfully rousing anthem with more than a hint of, again, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” in this sparse incarnation. And I do not make the Bob Dylan comparison lightly, for only Oldham has the depth and breadth of narrative to be worthy of it.
The title Pond Scum seems an apt referent. Allusion is Oldham’s stock in trade, metaphor heavy and dripping with irony, this is an allegorical title for the everyday. I have always thought that Bonnie “Prince” Billy captures the essence of life in his songs; songs about sex and death and the things that happen to us in between — that is to say, so much that it is probably impossible to ever say everything about such things — and this is how and why this recording, as with so much of his work, is simple testament and tribute to the quiet notice paid to the machinations of existence.These songs are what I have come to think of as the essence of his sound; without much in the way of accompaniment or production, they are truer somehow. Are they linked literally as much as they are lyrically to the devotional music they echo, to that place in each of us that knows there is more than meat and bones to being alive? In this they become songs of praise sung at the side of the road, watching the lights of the cars disappear into the distance; they are embodied mantras. Plainsong for lost souls; which is what we all are when we take a walk in these woods.
Each of these tracks has a place in time. It is one of those marvellous things about radio that it locks abstract moments into the concrete, tying a particular sound to a particular feeling to a particular day. I always enjoyed the clandestine nature of listening in to a Peel Session — they seemed so intimate, and that’s what comes across here. Arguably so much of Oldham’s music is intimate; disarming in its frankness, touching places that — as he sings on “Jolly One (2-15)” — “I can’t really touch”; and it is telling that this is the central track of the collection, a self-referential lullaby and a confessional, as well as a reminder that the relationship is two-sided. And, indeed, a reminder that he is more than these songs, a human connection that runs through everything he sings.The songs on Pond Scum are representative of the distilled essence of what Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s music is all about. So it is fitting that collected here are the scum from the surface of Will Oldham’s pond, beautiful and fragile, a reminder that even this can be sacred. The sessions showcase material from an eight-year period, including an evangelical rendering of Prince‘s “The Cross” and accompanied on the first four tracks by David Heumann, but otherwise solo. They are presented in reverse order, closing with the matchless eloquence of “Stable Will” and “The Idol on the Bar” resonating as the last notes echo into silence. The repeated refrain “I can’t stay here” is a reminder to not hang around too long in the past.
(There’s also a free bonus track download of “Rich Wife Full of Happiness” available here.)