David Olney Takes One to 'This Side or the Other'

Photo: John Partipilo / Courtesy of artist

On This Side or the Other, David Olney believes that the walls that separate us will disappear once we are buried in the cold, cold ground.

This Side or the Other
David Olney

Black Hen

24 August 2018

It's a wonder that David Olney is not better known. For over 30 years and more than 25 full-length albums, the singer-songwriter has consistently created tough, brooding songs about the human condition that reek of a questioning intelligence mixed with a literate wit. Olney's not afraid to peer into the darkness and laugh. His songs have been covered by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Earle, and Del McCoury. His old friend Townes Van Zandt once compared Olney's abilities to that of Mozart, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Bob Dylan. Can there be higher praise?

While fame has alluded Olney, the muse has always been with him. His latest release, This Side or the Other, finds him in fine form. The ten songs (nine originals and cowrites plus a cover of the Zombies' classic "She's Not There") are thematically linked by the idea of walls. Olney understands there are two sides to walls. Sure, they can protect, but they can also block one from experience. Olney's not talking about Donald Trump and the politics of it all, although messages about refugees, strangers, borders, and such are clear. He offers a bird's eye view and sees what goes on in the big picture. There is a spiritual aspect to the whole thing. He may not be playing god, but he frequently observes things from an omniscient point of view.

Consider a song like "I Spy" that directly concerns the double life, where lies and truth are equally true and important. Olney sings in a low raspy voice about the fronts we wear for others without ever actually knowing ourselves. He can't tell you how he feels because he doesn't know what is real. Although Olney vocalizes in the first person, he knows more than he knows. Call it intuition. Call it instinct. There is something supernatural about it all.

This persona pervades several other songs as well, including "Always the Stranger", "Running from Love", and "Border Town". Perhaps it's just the binary vision of the outsider and the providential nature of kismet. The guest senses the water in which all the fish swim even while gulping for air and growing gills to cope. "This strength is going to take me to my grave", Olney croons in an impassive manner. Fitting in or not fitting in—you still must pay the piper.

"Death Will Not Divide Us" goes the title of another track that reminds us of our shared fate. But Olney believes that the walls that separate us will disappear once we are buried in the cold, cold ground. He sings to a martial beat as if to invoke our slow, steady walk to our funerals. It's an uplifting, hopeful track despite the topic of mortality.

Olney also recorded a song that he said took him 25 years to write. "Stand Tall" tells the story of a person who changes by never changing. Experience is the price one pays for freedom knowing one will never be free. Or as Olney puts it, we may dig for gold, but we will never see it shine. That doesn't mean that the gold isn't there.

It may initially seem the cover of "She's Not There" that closes the record does not belong with his original compositions because it is a lighter pop confection, Olney takes the lyrics seriously. He growls lines such as "Let me tell you about the way she looked / the way she acted / the color of her hair" like a detective in a film noir movie. The narrative is essentially a mystery. Olney milks this aspect of the tune and turns the familiar oldie into something new and strange. That's right in line with the rest of the record. This Side or the Other works to remind that the walls between the singer and the listener, the stranger and the friend, can be broached by paying attention to our differences and realizing it is our eccentricities that make us normal.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.