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Friday, May 31, 2013

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, "I See A Darkness"

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
"I See A Darkness"
Palace (1999)

1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die + 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

It's obvious that most musicians dwelling in depressing topics draw some reverie from proclaiming their sadness. It's the the cliched concept that misery loves company. "Welcome To The Black Parade"-era My Chemical Romance exemplified this, with Gerard Way prancing around praising the wonders of gloom. Others sound so mournful when delivering good news that they gain a reputation as one of the most depressing acts in existence, despite writing cheerful numbers such as "Friday I'm In Love" (hint hint…The Cure). Will Oldham, known as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy for a few albums, walks a tighter emotional tightrope than most during "I See A Darkness."

Oldham and any performer's level of woe is most accessible in their lyrics. The title track, "Another Day Full of Dread" and "Black" are honest to their dour titles (the lattermost convinces us that Oldham does indeed suffer from bouts of depression). Not everything on this album shares the same mood however. Uncovering Oldham's true intentions is difficult because of the songwriter's mixing of different lyrical and instrumental moods.

Tracks such as "Song For The New Breed" sound so mournful, it's easy to ignore what's going on in the lyrics. The song is obviously an ode from a pregnant mother to an unborn child and the meaning can't be mistaken for anything but affection, but Oldham sounds so downtrodden. Other tracks take bleak subject matter and frame it against upbeat instrumentals. "Death To Everyone" explores the inevitability of our demise, but Oldham sounds pleased by this. The live version included on the re-release could be described as "rocking," a term not applicable to the rest of this album.

Oldham creates darkness with his instrumentals without relying on minor keys, normally the go-to source of sadness in music. Instead, he uses minimal and sparse instrumentation to create a sensation of loneliness. The instruments shuffle, but the style remains the same. Drumming tends to consist of infrequent bass notes and brushes on cymbals, guitars quietly pluck, and piano chords have extended gaps between them. Harmony vocals come from a distance during "Dread," emphasizing Oldham's loneliness, and more meta, his emptiness. It's a recording technique in line with what Paul Bley did during "Fragments"

Sad albums often scare listeners away, and minimalist albums often send listeners packing. If you can handle the sparsity of Oldham's approach, I challenge you to overcome the bleak facade of his album art and song titles. There's more than meets the eye in "I See A Darkness" on both sides of the emotional see-saw.

INTERESTING FACT: Oldham's moniker is a combination of the names of Bonnie Prince Charlie, an 18th Century British prince, and Billy The Kid. The songwriter rarely sticks with a performing title too long, saying that listeners don't expect the same product if he switches aliases. A valid perception on consumer philosophy.

Nomadic Revery (All Around) by Bonnie 'Prince' Billy on Grooveshark

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