Steamboat Willie Bonnie Prince of all this shit, you’re like the king of a certain genre
But even you must want to quit like if you hear a record by Bob Dylan or Neil Young or whatever
You must start thinkin’ “People like me, but i won’t be that good ever”
And I’m sure the thing is probably Dylan himself too stayed up some nights
Wishing he was as good as Ginsberg or Camus
And he was like “Dude, I’m such a faker, I’m just a clown who entertains
and these fools who pay for my crap, they just have pathetic punny brains
and Camus probably wished he was Milton too or whatever, you know what i’m sayin’?!”
Jeffrey Lewis wrote that, Jeffrey Lewis is a sort of king of the nerds for the anti-folk fan. On that note can we all just stop saying anti-folk now? It’s done right the whole thing has been accepted as some big stupid joke. Jeffrey Lewis is just a folk musician, Kimya Dawson just a folk musician, Adam Green well he’s Adam Green isn’t he!
Anyway by now you’re probably thinking “hey dude, what the hell are you rambling on about? What’s with that quote thing? Where are you going with all this?” well ok i’ll get to the point. That quote is from Jeffrey’s song “Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror” a (probably) fictional tale of when Jeff saw someone he was pretty sure was Will Oldham on a train. Jeff begs with Will to tell him the secrets of being the “king of a certain genre” as Jeff laments his own career and wonders if he’s any good or not (he is very good but that’s not where I’m going with this). Sadly for Jeff his attempts to be reassured by his hero end rather sourly with a brutal beating and a “humping” from the man who may or may not have been Will Oldham. So the point I’m making here? If you’re good enough to be a hero to Jeffrey Lewis (The Jeffrey Lewis) you’re pretty damn good, and Will Oldham well he’s pretty much the greatest.
Don’t belive me? Well he sang it himself “I’m the worlds greatest” he muttered, when he covered another great solo artist. That’s right he covered R.Kelly (the R.Kelly) it’s pretty special if you haven’t had the chance.
In his special career, Will’s taken on a few alter-egos, so whether you know him as Will Oldham, Bonnie “Prince” Billy or The Palace Brothers, the main thing is you’ve got to give him a go! In my humble opinion it was as Bonnie he hit his highest high, when he released 1999’s “I See A Darkness” and what a bloomin’ brilliant album that was, so getting to the point, for today’s “ooh yeh i’d forgotten about that song” we revisit that albums rather wonderful title track…
BONNIE “PRINCE” BILLY – I SEE A DARKNESS
So you want some more evidence how good Bonnie “Prince” Billy is? Well how about the fact Johnny Cash covered this song? How about not only does Jeffrey Lewis reference him, but Biffly Clyro do to? How about the fact he was a childhood actor, turned musician, turned star of a Kanye West video? HOW ABOUT YOU STOP DOUBTING HOW GOOD HE IS OK?! (He’s also got a simply amazing face)
So now you’ve accepted he’s amazing, it’s time to explain what’s so special about this track, that’s why we’re here after all.
Opening with a low rumbling piano chord, and a gentle guitar strum, it’s an atmospheric beginning, instantly creating a sombre mood. Then come’s the chilling vocal, Will’s voice is a pretty special thing. In some ways it’s pure beauty, but it’s also cracked and strained. He has perfected that whispered but emotive sound that so many strive towards. “Well you’re my friend” he chimes in after 20 seconds, and “many times we’ve been out drinking, and many times we’ve shared our thoughts” these opening lyrics are again setting a mood, a scene if you will. Introducing us to his partner in crime, letting us know this a story for a good friend, by introducing a subject for his words he creates an instant intimacy. Taking the listener from a casual observer and placing them at the heart of his story. It instantly makes you feel that what he’s got to say is going to be important and makes you feel like you need to hear his confessional.
As he sets the scene, the story begins to unravel “did you ever, ever notice, the kind of thoughts I’ve got” hinting instantly at his battles with his demons. Not ready to instantly unfurl his true feelings to his old friend Will continues “you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know” it creates a feeling of insecurity. Indeed it’s very similar to the way once brilliant friends who haven’t been in contact for a while interact, wanting to pour your heart and soul out but wanting to make sure you’re trusted and that the other person understands where you’re coming from. It also introduces the listener to his personality and lifestyle, creating a feeling of empathy towards him.
Then comes the chorus, he’s joined by a perfectly judged backing vocal as both men sing together “and then I see a darkness” the repeated line before he adds “and did you know how much I love you, is there hope that somehow you can save me from this darkness” for me this is a man battling depression. The darkness representing the feelings of sadness that well up in him despite things seemingly going well in his life, as from the first verse we are aware he’s a man who has “a love for everyone he knows” so we are aware that his life is not tragic or a disaster. He talks too in the first verse of how his minds “opposition, comes up riding up sometimes” and “comes blacking in my mind”. A man depressed turning to his oldest friend, for a shoulder to cry on. However the introduction of the second vocalist in the chorus add’s another element, as we enter the second verse we realise that perhaps Will is not alone in his dark thoughts.
Where the first verse talks purely of Will’s struggles here we get a change of narrative “well I hope someday buddy, we have peace in our lives” an implication perhaps that both men need one another, that together than they can beat the demons inside them both. He elaborates on their issues “we can stop our whoring, and pull our smiles inside, and light it up forever and never go to sleep” implying a sense of guilt for their mutual behaviour. Giving a sense of man who wants to straighten up and fly right, but is pulled down into what he see’s as sinning by his inner demons and his inability to overcome his own personal darkness. A man not asking for forgiveness from anyone but himself.
As the repeated chorus kicks back in for the second and final time, it becomes bigger, the piano chords heavier and more frequent, the drums crash, it almost sounds triumphant, or it would were it not for the vocal, which remains heartbroken, defeated and pleading for help. It’s a wonderful example of the human voices ability to communicate emotion. For all the sadness of his words, the honesty and truth behind them only comes across in the voice. Anyone can sing about their demons, but not anyone can make it believable and convincing.
Musically it’s a very simple track, the piano and guitar minimal, the drums fleeting and simple. It’s an understated beauty, no note is unnecessary, no sound without it’s own place and it’s own importance. It’s nothing short of a master piece from a true master of his craft, it’s stunning!
P.S. For his “Now Here’s My Plan” EP he reworked the track last year, giving it a jaunty country feel, and even goes a bit disco in places. It’s got it’s own charm, but it just doesn’t really carry the emotional punch of the original. I can only assume he had grown a tad tired of singing such a sad song so often that by making it jaunty it wasn’t so difficult for him. The addition of a female backing vocal from Angel Olsen certainly added something to, if you’ve given the original enough listens it’s worth your time, but don’t listen to the new one by mistake, you’ll think my review is all kinds of wrong!