Existential dread is nothing new for Will Oldham's performing persona, but this new record might be his most harrowing yet.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy has always seemed to hail from a parallel reality. The pseudofictional persona crafted by Will Oldham has the aesthetic of crossing over from a smoky and nebulous realm, where the chronology of musical history progresses in spirals rather than linearly. The troubadour’s latest release, Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues, finds his character at odds with that reality and with the very nature of existence.
Though there are some glimpses of lighthearted whimsy, the work is overall one helluva dark undertaking. It is tortured throughout, with every song overflowing with quotable couplets expressing psychological torment, existential ennui, alienation, and a general feeling of being out of step with the world. Such pervasive dread is nothing new to the songwriter’s modus operandi, but it is his most harrowing album since 1999's I See a Darkness, and is more unrelenting than that record -- and when said record contains songs “Death to Everyone” and “Another Day Full of Dread”, that’s saying something. And while a fair amount of the songs were originally released on 2011's Wolfroy Goes to Town, the track list here finds them better organized in a narrative and thematic sense.
Weary lap pedal steel guitars, gospel singers, and violins by turns mournful and portentous give weight to Billy’s eerie poetry, which he delivers via his unmistakable threadbare tenor. The majority of the work sounds as though he and his ghostly band are performing in the smoking ruins of a hillside settlement, grey skies and drizzling rain falling upon them. Though it doesn’t reveal itself initially, the album features a thematic progression, the earlier tunes comparatively lighter and lulling you into a sense of ease. One after the other, though, the songs get increasingly dour as the narrators’ worldview grows progressively despondent.
Things start off on a deceptively pleasant note with “Night Noises”. A relaxed flow conveys the narrator’s affinity for the underworld lifestyle of soiled doves and drinking without economy. Acoustic guitar picking and reedy harmony vocals, along with the winding tones of the pedal steel, bolster the sense of achieving grace through debauchery, making it suitable accompaniment for a Sunday morning hangover meditation. The first indication of a darker turn comes with second track “So Far and Here We Are”. Chugging guitars give it the feel of roiling muddy water, the menace it’s imbued with seeming to emerge from a dank bayou. “Once I had a partner / But now that is done,” Billy sings with all of the ominous implications that entails, the impressionistic narrative depicting an outlaw on the lam in some hostile land. A searing electric guitar burns through the rumble of acoustic strumming, growing in intensity as the song advances. Near the end, it ascends into a frenzy, overtaking all else. Completing this opening triage is “There Will Be Spring”, which is not as hopeful as its title implies. The pedal steel takes on lachrymose elements and Billy sings with a palpable loneliness as you hear fingers running against the fret board. “I build a place for me and my friends / And they all walk by instead of enter,” Billy plaintively states, for the idea of keeping an eye toward the pleasures of spring is not always a solace enough.
Interestingly, there is abrupt emotional vacillation in the narrators’ mindset. Though the tone is consistently world weary, flashes of affection and romance interjected. More often than not, the contradictory views are placed side by side. With “There Will Be Spring”, the narrator finds some respite between the thighs of a lover and in “Whipped”, Billy sings, “Must be love / I’m whipped and cowed.” This recognition comes immediately after that somber tune builds to a transcendent moment of being overwhelmed with joy, almost as if saying the sense of love is just a temporary balm on the inevitable return to emptiness. There is similar ambivalence in “It’s Time to be Clear”, in which Billy advises one to “stop all your moaning and bemoaning of fate / God isn’t listening or else it’s too late” before soothing the person he’s addressing with “I will take care of you, dear”. In the pained “New Black Rich (Tusks)”, Billy repeats in a hushed manner “If the world were more beautiful, then you would be / So I’ll say goodbye before we meet,” all while sparse drums and a maudlin violin play behind him. This frequent dichotomy between being beleaguered with life and brief flares of hope and appreciation of beauty keeps the album from being overbearing. It also gives some compelling insight into the narrators’ psychologies and is emblematic of how truly maladjusted they are.
The finest example of this is “Quail and Dumplings”. The verses are doom-laden and desperate, a screeching violin and grimly tuned guitar supporting imagery of a dilapidated rural hut inhabited by a starving family. So effective is the music, you feel as if you’re in the hovel with the wretchedly poor folk. Come the chorus, though, the tempo bounces up and the mood becomes celebratory, buoyant cooing and singalong lyrics showing that the family is convinced that despite their current woes, they’ll soon get to the point where feasting will be regular. Yet when the archaic violin arises to close out the number, it gives the impression the family’s notions are but delusions, perhaps hallucinations borne of their empty stomachs. The most overtly despairing tune here, and maybe it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, is “We Are Unhappy”. Built around banjo plucking and having an Appalachian twang, it’s an ode to wallowing in misery and not faking cheerfulness for appearances or to dupe yourself. The gospel choir going wild throughout creates a religious feel, one that is inverted and mocked when the singers support Billy delivering lyrics like, “Mind it is going / And faith is destroyed / An emptiness showing / God’s cruelty deployed,” Despite such sentiments, the song’s melody and rhythm cast the ambience of sitting around a bonfire in the fall, all those gathered around chiming in on singing the declarative chorus of “Nothing is better / Nothing is best / We are unhappy / We are unblessed.”
The album ends on the quasi-title track “Sailor’s Grave a Sea of Sheep” and it provides closure to the affair. Shuffling percussion and stark piano chords hang back as Billy’s sandy voice offers some acceptance of his plight. There is no railing against the state of things, no trying to understand or rationalize. Instead, the singer is fine with not being fine, and that’s about the best he can hope for. “It’s OK / This is done, let it be so / And now you can let me go,” he sings as the final words of both the song and the record. It’s the perfect way to wrap the album, which is not easy to get through for those who shy away from looking into the abyss. But for those who relish in dark nights of the soul, there are few better choices this year.