Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

cover art

Bonnie "Prince" Billy

There Is No God / God Is Love

(Drag City; US: 12 Jun 2011; UK: 20 Jun 2011)

A Sexy Single

Let’s take the expression, “God is love”. What does it make you think of—some radiant Christian theology about the relationship between human beings and each other and their Lord? And what about the phrase, “There is no God”—does this seem to carry the opposite, atheistic implication? Or perhaps mentally you add the phrase “but God” to the end and think of the Muslim expression, “There is no God but God (Allah)”.

Well, a close listen to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new vinyl 10” charity single would have you scratching your head in your search for meaning. It’s not as if Billy’s just rambling, although he does that too—his first word after he sings the title of the A-side, “God Is Dead” is that notorious conjunction of escapist rhetoric, “but”, which allows him lots of wiggle room. Billy seems to have little desire to be clear, an impression which is reinforced by the relatively lo-fi production values. He does seem to be having a good time. At times he even laughs on the disc, and even sings a line about God being found when one sings in laughter.

Billy mixes his religious philosophies together in his search for joy and pleasure. He finds God in the strangest places. While W. B. Yeats famously noted that “Love has pitched its mansion in the house of excrement”, Billy takes a more oral approach. His God is “that which puts mouth on cock and vagina”. Eat of my flesh indeed. Transubstantiation never sounded so appealingly weird.

The idea of connecting a holy being with human sexuality has a long tradition. Billy may be blunt, but he works from old conventions. He doesn’t stop with God being sex or laughter; he notes that one dies while others live on, the multiplicity of the universe and the endless theories about what it all means. What if it’s all a celestial joke? What if everybody’s wrong? That’s cool, because we can still enjoy our physicality and have a sense of humor about the whole thing. It doesn’t matter what we think: what matters is what is real.

The B-side is spookier. “I am always scared”, Billy confesses at the beginning of the song. He’s frightened about meeting someone (God or a lover or a friend or some combination thereof—which is not clear), but he knows the importance of being with another. He ends the song with a kind of desperate plea: “God is everything I have loved”. The 45 seconds of sparse instrumentation that follows suggests that he’s not really convinced by this. (It should be noted that he’s aided by musicians Emmett Kelly, Ben Hall, Pete Cummings, Peter Townshend, Billy Contreras, Cassie Berman and Rachel Korine.) He would like to believe God can be found in his personal dealings, but he’s also aware of the narcissistic implications of such a thought.

Billy has a social conscience. The profits from the sale of this single go to Save Our Gulf to support the work of seven Waterkeepers (activist members of the environmental organization Waterkeeper Alliance) on the Gulf Coast who were directly impacted by the BP oil disaster, and to the Turtle Hospital. In the end, who knows what Will Oldham really thinks? Bonnie “Prince” Billy is just one of his many personas. The intimacy of this recording suggests the singer means everything he says. Perhaps he does, or perhaps his message is simpler than that: We should laugh about the absurd nature of our existence, he says, and donate money to make our environment clean and help our fellow beings.


Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "There is No God"
Related Articles
3 Aug 2014
Bonnie "Prince" Billy and Emmett Kelly of the Cairo Gang decided to record a song for a 1971 surf documentary soundtrack. Things only get stranger from there.
23 Jun 2014
Oldham and Kelly are seaside in Australia, lounging out two excellent recordings for a new film.
13 Feb 2013
Bonnie "Prince" Billy captivated the Allen Room audience with a two-hour set.
31 Oct 2012
Will Oldham is full of contradictions, slippery statements, and philosophical musings. Reading this provides a certain feeling that the curtain is getting pulled back to reveal the Wizard.
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2015 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.