“Oh life is sweet and death a dream,” sweetly coos Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy as he plunges a dagger into your ear on When We Are Inhuman. It’s a wonderful collaborative album he’s made with Bryce Dessner of the National and Eighth Blackbird and released on the 37d03d label.
I’ve always marveled at Oldham’s ability to write about the dark gothic heart of America, about human frailties and bodily fluids and yet do it with such a beautiful voice that I’m often overjoyed at the experience of listening to him. Sadly that usually happens whilst belting out inappropriate snatches of lyrics in front of my horrified kids.
When We Are Inhuman continues this tradition. There are new workings of four of Oldham’s songs, a continuation of Dessner’s own “Murder Ballades” series, a rendition of a very very dark traditional Irish/Scottish song and an interpretation of “Stay on It” written by the minimalist avant-garde and agent provocateur Julius Eastman on which contemporary classical ensemble Eighth Blackbird really do stretch their wings and fly high.
The album opens with Oldham’s “Beast For Thee”, taken from the 2005 album Superwolf made with Matt Sweeney. Replacing the guitar here is gorgeous xylophone, piano, cello, and violin providing an uplifting backdrop to Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s mournful, whispered, yet deeply textured and attention-seeking voice. It’s a voice that demands the listener listens to him. This is a stunning opening to the album, encapsulating all that is special about Bonnie “Prince” Billy; a combination of great songwriting and storytelling combined with sumptuous vocal delivery.
The second track, “Down in the Willow Garden”, reacquaints Bryce Dessner and Eighth Blackbird in a continuation of their collaboration for Dessner’s “Murder Ballades” series. Derived from an Irish folk tale, “Down in the Willow Garden” became a traditional Appalachian song that has been covered by everyone from the Everly Brothers to Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong. The song tells of the murder of Rose Connolly by her lover and features the voice of Nathalie Joachim. Whilst the subject matter is dark, Oldham and Joachim’s interplay and lilting vocals alongside Dessner’s arrangement can’t help but bring a smile to my face.
“New Partner” is the next reworking of an older Bonnie “Prince” Billy song, this time taken from the Sings Greatest Palace Songs album. It is perhaps the closest to the original version from the four songs chosen for When We Are Inhuman. What it does do though, is remind me of the majesty of this song which first appeared on a Japanese version of Bright Eye’s 2000 release B’hel. The song sits perfectly here, leading as it does with the fadeout of the tambourine mimicking the sound of a horse’s footsteps into the tense, taunting instrumental “Underneath the Floorboards”, a song inspired by Sufjan Steven’s Illinois album. It reminded me of the great film composer Bernard Herrmann’s work, and it wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock thriller.
“One With the Birds” is the third new/old Bonnie “Prince” Billy track and is out of this world. Arranged by Lisa Kaplan, it’s a grown-up children’s song. A lovely piano refrain and Oldham’s plaintive, pleading vocals implore us to talk to each other. It’s fitting that the song has resurfaced in such turbulent times. Why, indeed, be inhuman? The final reworked Bonnie “Prince” Billy song is When Thy Song, taken from the 1998 Blue Lotus Feet EP. This version is extended by a couple of minutes from the original, which gives it some space to breathe and move glacially towards its conclusion.
Things turn decidedly darker on the reading of the Irish/Scottish folk song “Banks of Red Roses” about (another!) murder of a woman by her lover. It’s a raw and emotive murder ballad sung with a lilting falsetto by Oldham who has a knack for painting pictures in the listener’s mind.
The last song on the album comes as a jolt of the blue and is a brilliant closer. Written by Julius Eastman, “Stay on It” is a 16-minute live recording by Eighth Blackbird. I have to admit to not knowing of Eastman before, which judging by this song is a grave mistake. A composer, dancer, teacher, and provocateur, Eastman led a volatile but creative life before dying broke and homeless at the age of 49. “Stay on It” is a joyous, uplifting piece of music full of sharp stabs of strings, rolling percussion, and background vocals. It’s a revelation that makes one wonder how on earth Eastman’s work has remained so hidden for so long.
When We Are Inhuman is a fabulous album. It will reward and enrich fans and casual listeners of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, murder ballads, and contemporary classical music and that is some achievement. It will also open the door into the world of Julius Eastman and may afford him some long overdue recognition.