Thursday, August 16, 2007

[089] I See A Darkness

Album: I See A Darkness
Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Release Date: January 1999
Label: Palace Records
Producers: Will Oldham, I presume

“Well I hope that someday, buddy, we'll have peace in our lives
Together or apart, alone or with our wives
And we can stop our whoring, and pull the smiles inside
And light it up forever, and never go to sleep
My best unbeaten brother, this isn’t all I see…
…I know I see a darkness…”
- from the title track

Everyday, when I sit down to write the next entry for the list, I look at the complete 100, and decide how I feel about it. Sometimes I move albums’ positions. Sometimes I remove one and replace it with an album I overlooked or undersold, though this album seems like the final piece to the puzzle. So far, this album has been my second best discovery of this project (The best won’t come for a while). Its spot on the list originally belonged to Slint’s 1991 album Spiderland, an album of cult classic stature, at least in the Indie Rock world; I sat down with my headphones on, ready to bang out my entry for the Louisville, KY quartet’s post-rock platter, but you know what? Spiderland isn’t good enough to be on this list. I left a lot of better discs off, so I couldn’t justify including it, and I went looking for a suitable replacement. It was right under my nose, literally. Will Oldham, a small time actor at the time, took the iconic cover photo of Slint taking a swim, and after the band called it quits, some of the members joined Oldham in starting his Palace music series. I See A Darkness, Oldham’s first album under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy name, has become his most well-known and dearly beloved; I figured, I had a copy a friend had burned me, I never really listened to it, and others were of the opinion that it was The Shit – I have an open spot, why not give it a shot? It won me over.

When I was young, my parents had friends that would visit from Sweden that were folk musicians. They had this word, "stämma", which has two translations: "voice" and "meeting or assembly"; it's no wonder that's what they called their jam sessions. Just a bunch of friends hanging out in someone's living room or porch or yard, drinking and playing music and dancing. Will Oldham had a "stämma", and he recorded it. Now, I See A Darkness is a tremendouly dour album. In many ways, the somber tone of the songs and the emotional conveyance in Oldham’s vocals, unhampered by studio magic, result in a distant relative to Portishead’s downbeat classic Dummy, a pen pal letter of rural melancholy sent in response to those chronicles of painful urban landscapes. But I feel like the depression never overtakes the songs because of the joy in the friends playing together. That's what folk music and the punk Do-It-Yourself ethic is about; just picking up an instrument and making sound, and there's a natural human release in that. There's such a ramshackle grandeur to this album, not so much of the Tom Waits variety (though "Song For The New Breed" could be his jazzy shuffle), but more along the lines of Bob Dylan's work with The Band up at Big Pink, captured on The Basement Tapes.

Oldham’s music has featured prominently in the development of American roots music in a post-punk world since the mid-90’s, and this album, surely a classic of New Americana, appeared at just the right time, closely following Dylan’s career recalibration with Time Out Of Mind, and the kaleidoscopic bombshell that was Neutral Milk Hotel’s In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I See A Darkness was a Folk album for the coming millennium, looking back at a century of homemade music; "A Minor Place" draws from simple church hymns while "Nomadic Revery" and "Knockturne" dig into Appalachia. But in summarizing the past, he unknowingly set the stage for the rise of artists such as Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, and Feist, to name just a few. Listen harder, and you can even hear the sleepy Stax balladry of recent Cat Power in "Today I Was An Evil One", and the brooding post-grunge of latter day Pearl Jam in "Death To Everyone". You can hear why Johnny Cash covered the title track. At the time though, it was just a collection of songs made by friends, and that's what folk music should be.

01. "A Minor Place"
02. "Nomadic Revery (All Around)"
03. "I See A Darkness"
04. "Another Day Full Of Dread"
05. "Death To Everyone"
06. "Knockturne"
07. "Madeleine-Mary"
08. "Song For The New Breed"
09. "Today I Was An Evil One"
10. "Black"
11. "Raining In Darling"

"I See A Darkness" [live in Copenhagen, March 2007]

- BONUS: "Nomadic Revery (All Around)" [in-store performance, 08.06]
- BONUS: "Another Day Full Of Dread" [home video]

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