There's something about Will Oldham that kind of gives me the creeps.
He's a brilliant songwriter, but his subject matter has always seemed just too damn starkly honest about the mercurial, often devious desires of the human heart.
Try this lyric, from 1996's Arise Therefore: "Make a noise, crack a glass. I'll hold his arms, you f--k him. F--k him with something. A f--k, he deserves it. Stay here while I get a curse to give him a goat head. Make him watch me take his place. Night has brought him something worse."
I don't know exactly what this song is about but I do know that the lyrics are sung unapologetically, as the protagonist finds real joy in causing another agony.
Perhaps what really bothers me is that I see something of my own deep dark desires that dare not be named lurking in Oldham's songs. The same way a peaceful, humanity-loving man might—in a quiet moment quickly pushed away—find a glimmer of pleasure imagining himself in the role of a murderer or a rapist. Most of the deviance in Oldham's songs revolve around betrayal, jealousy and broken hearts, but those are not the kind of emotions people take pride in.
"I'm not sure that people are a lot smarter than I am by figuring out ways to live life without those constant ingredients," Oldham says of his song's darker aspects. "Maybe it's just something that gets into the songs because it's a good place for them. It's [emotions] that get avoided so much that only when it's too late to do anything about it do things come to the surface. If you put it in a song, maybe it helps people get a little more prepared. And it feels good to hear it in a song or see it in a movie—and it can make a person happy, even though it's superficially not a happy event or a happy emotion."
Oldham recorded his first album—there is no one what will take care of you—under the moniker Palace Brothers in 1993. The sparse recordings were part of the emerging lo-fi indie scene and were viewed as cryptic Appalachian folk ballads (including an ode to incest and a rant against religion called "(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit"). Oldham was no fad. Over several albums since then, he's proven himself to be one his generation's most intuitive, evocative songwriters. His songs have now been recorded by a number of artists, including the legendary Johnny Cash.
The songwriter enhanced the enigmatic nature of his songs by recording under various names: Palace Brothers, Palace, Palace Songs, and most recently, Will Oldham and Bonnie 'Prince' Billy (the name which he just released ease down the road under and will be appearing at Blue Cats as).
"It was just trying to find a comfortable relationship between popular identity and personal identity," Oldham says of the constant name changes. "I was not that happy with the idea of the records being relegated to a name. I thought each record had more to offer than just being part of a discography. I'd rather they remain unclassified then being grouped together, because they weren't thematically related. It wasn't intending to promote a band, it was intending to promote the songs themselves."
The records may vary in theme, but they're all unmistakably Oldham's work.
The characters in his songs are human—they lust after and sleep with people they shouldn't, betray and hurt the ones they love, they lie, drink and steal, and usually enjoy doing so. But they're genuinely human, hoping and longing for something more. And when they connect with another person, the moment is transcendent.
The latest Bonnie 'Prince' Billy album was an attempt to express the seedy and lascivious, Oldham says.
"The idea was to make a record not quite like a romance novel but one that has a lot of trash in it. Because I have a lot of trash in my brain—things you wouldn't want to speak to your grandmother about."
Oldham says he was composing for people like him, who "enjoy music, enjoy honesty among friends, enjoy beauty," he says, "but who also have blood and disease and lies as much a part of their lives. And that's worthy to be sung about but not necessarily put in a negative framework."
Sometimes, Oldham is just having fun with his music. "Just To See My Holly Home" from the new record starts out with the narrator walking his girl home. Along the way, they encounter Evil Jack and give him a "painful jawful" and a "gorgeous anxious slut" whom they punch. Soon, they're killing anyone and everyone who comes near them and potentially threatens their love: "in come babies one two three/ like to bounce them on our knee/ want to stay and grow up with us/ baby stew will surely fill us," he sings.
The song sounds like a lullaby and has the weight of an old fable.
"I was thinking of songs like 'Monster Mash,'" he says. "I was trying to make a song that most of the joy is built on horror. By building a mountain of joy out of horror, I though that would be a big accomplishment."