To have Johnny Cash perform any song of yours early in your career indicates a pinnacle moment paramount to reaching Mt. Everest or being the first musician in space. In 1999, Will Oldham dropped the Palace Music moniker and exchanged it for a precarious replacement: Bonnie “Prince” Billy. After releasing I See a Darkness in 2000, the album achieved what Oldham set out to accomplish with the Palace Brothers/Palace Music, which meant abandoning any prior formula reminiscent of his deep folk influence and carve out for himself a musical likeness comparable to no other. Oldham adapted themes of peril and despair with odes to every known sin to man.
In spite of his success, Bonnie “Prince” Billy made records faster than they could be consumed, recording with countless artists and even registering several Peel Sessions. The first Peel Session took place in February 1999. For nearly 17 minutes, BBC’s listening audience caught a glimpse of the ebullient dynamic between Oldham’s recorded material and the stripped-down approach of just a man, his frail voice, his poignant lyrics, and his guitar. Peel still finds a way to best capture the true essence of an artist, which in Oldham’s case is no caricature or abstraction. It is Oldham without the threat of pretension. Pond Scum creates the need to hear Oldham in Peel’s environment where light reveals everything, blemishes and all.
Pond Scum, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s latest offering, excavates rare artifacts — performances occasionally eclipsing the original album tracks, especially given the vocal clarity to underscore Oldham’s lyrical virtuosity. For example, “Rich Wife Full of Happiness” showcases Oldham’s elegiac delivery where the narrative takes precedence over the occasionally strummed guitar. When Oldham completes the couplet with stark imagery to describe a person’s inner turmoil, “She can”t hold her eyes or her voice / The way nooses hold necks still in excellent poise”, reveals a simplicity in the near-whispered tenderness not heard on Ease on Down the Road. “Stable Will” finds a more comfortable pace than the original Palace Brothers 7″ release. The sonic distractions removed and Oldham”s yelps and strained vocals omitted, the track prevails over the original.
Touching the sacred nature of “Death to Everyone” on I See a Darkness marks the song’s spiritual reflections more candid, more refined, more profound. The falsetto la’s sung between verses ring morose, like pallbearers singing the humble melody while carrying a casket to its final resting place. “Trudy Dies”, on the other hand, resonates with a more optimistic slant while the speaker laments his recently deceased partner and the death”s immediate effects on his surroundings. Both the Walkmen”s Hamilton Leithauser and Scout Niblett have paid greater homage to the original, but Oldham”s discreet rendering captures the narrator”s grief better than each one of them combined.
Back in 2012 when Dave Bazan began his series of living room performances, the first artist that came to mind to perform in the same kind of environment was Oldham. His recent live stints, accompanied by Chavez’s Matt Sweeney, casted a shadow over his gift of connecting intimately with an audience imagining Oldham singing only to them. Pond Scum brings fans closer to the very same material they have long adored, humbled and reposed.