Retrospective Guest Review
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
I See A Darkness
(01.1999, Palace Records)
When I become acquainted with an incredible album I generally have one of two immediate reactions, inspiration or devastation. Some albums inspire and motivate my creativity, or at least my desire to be a creative person. Other albums devastate any notion that I might be capable of the type of creativity presented. I See A Darkness is one of the few albums that in some ways inspires, in some ways devastates, but in all ways demands your attention.
I came upon I See A Darkness a few years after its initial release. Music is a constant process of catch up, and in an effort to retrace the musical landscape in which I live I read a critics list of the best albums of the 90’s. It was somewhere on the list, and for an unknown reason this album peaked my interest. Acting on this cursory introduction I bought the album without any notions of what I might encounter. The physical album only added mystery to my approach. The ominous cover was black with a strangely shaped gray skull. On the back was an anything but ominous picture of a goofily smirking, mustachioed Will Oldham sitting on a porch with an old straw like hat on his chest. The disk went into my car stereo.
The first song begins with sparse drums, echoing piano, and simple acoustic bass and guitar. Without much introduction the voice and words arrive. Will Oldham’s warbling, nasal voice sings "Well I’ve been to a minor place." He later clarifies this isn’t an insignificant or small place, it is "minor in a sound alone." From this foreboding start, I See A Darkness proceeds to enthrall, charm, and stupefy with its simplicity, beauty, and conflict. Although slow and dark, with song titles such as "I See a Darkness," and "Death to Everyone", the album is less depressing than one might expect. Will Oldham’s eccentricities color each song, and his smirk seems to pervade the entire album.
To me, the brilliance of the album is epitomized in the chorus of ‘Another Day Full of Bread’ in which Will sings "nip! nap! It’s all a trap. Bo! Bis! And so is this," followed by "ding! dong! A silly song. Sure do say something’s wrong." Now, if you haven’t yet heard the album, try and imagine musical accompaniment and a voice that could legitimize such silly lyrics. Then you will have a vague idea of what this dark yet quirky album is all about. Regardless, it is one of my favorites, and an album that to this day hasn’t relinquished its grip. Also worth notice is Johnny Cash’s cover of the song "I See A Darkness" with Will singing backup.
Bonnie "Prince" Billy - "I See A Darkness"