Twenty years on, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness continues to beguile listeners. Jonny Potts tries to make sense of a timeless classic.
It’s strange to consider I See a Darkness in terms of its age. Really, it’s strange to consider it being subject to time at all. It’s one of the very few records which approaches that essentially impossible quality: timelessness. But to call it timeless misses the mark, even if it’s not wholly inaccurate. This is a record which forces engagement on its own terms: every reflexive impulse, every rush to readymade adjective or reliable cliché, fails.
This isn’t the case for all great records. You can throw adjectives at Exile on Main Street or Unknown Pleasures and a lot of them will stick. But like all the very best albums, I See a Darkness is unique. That is not to say it doesn’t sound like anything else. The songs are pretty much in a tradition forged by the likes of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt and Leonard Cohen: formally influenced by country and folk, melodically tinted by pop and rock, and driven by an aching drive to connect.
It makes sense that one of the artist’s earlier major songs quoted Willie Nelson, and that he has since released an album of Merle Haggard covers. It can also be argued that I See a Darkness is the high water mark of a particularly American strain of introspective minimalism that’s gained widespread critical acclaim over the last quarter century or so. You can hear it in the work of Smog, Lambchop, Mount Eerie, Sun Kil Moon and – often but not always – Cat Power. Of course, those artists’ best records are so compelling that it’s hard to argue for I See A Darkness’s supremacy over them, especially if one happens to be playing at the time.
Which brings us back to the problem of time. By 1999, Will Oldham had already recorded accomplished, subtly inventive music as Palace Music, Palace Brothers and under his own name. (The lonesome but rapturous 1995 Palace Music release Viva Last Blues might also have a claim to that term ‘timeless’.) He settled on the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy for this record and has kept it for almost all of his subsequent recordings. Will Oldham has a voice, face and mien which make it difficult to try to pin down his age. He was apparently born not bald but already balding, and with a full beard.
When I saw him play in Wellington about 15 years ago, there was something cartoonish about the light bouncing from his bulbous skull as he jerked his stork-like limbs across the stage. He was wearing shorts and sandals, and had the easy grace of a true eccentric. I could not tell how old he was then and he looks essentially the same now. You have to compare his appearance in the 1987 film Matewan with his appearance in the 2006 film Old Joy to see any evidence of his ageing at all. Even then it helps to squint a little. In addition to this, as a writer and performer he was always mature without seeming precocious. He has a quality of, well, timelessness about himself to begin with.
Unlike most products of the late 90s, I See A Darkness bears no obvious markers of its era, so the listener doesn’t sense the weight of years on it. And yet awareness of the passing of time is one of its recurring themes, which is fine, a lot of art deals in paradox and tension. On this record tensions grind themselves into a graceful, painful stalemate. These songs are largely concerned with two of the Big Themes: love and death. The drives of love and death (Eros and Thanatos if you’re into the whole Freud thing) are twinned in such a way as to enhance one another in the title track’s central couplet:
“And then I see a darkness / Did you know how much I love you?”
This typifies the uneasy but sustained balance of I See a Darkness. Songs push and pull, tantalise and reward, levitate and plunge… but they do not really move. They are sculptures of tone and mood suspended in their own mystery, self-sustaining and resistant to interpretation. But, they are not wilfully opaque; no games are being played. And yet it is so hard to say what is so special about it.
The first sound is piano; A small wave collapsing on shore. I had remembered this first track taking its time in sweeping the listener back to the depths, but we’re four seconds in when we get the voice. Not one, but two tracks of Will Oldham’s slack, quiet voice.
But we’re four seconds in and I realise the water metaphor, while fine, isn’t quite right for the album. These four seconds are more like pushing off on a bike or stepping onto a tightrope. The song wobbles slightly as it stabilises itself, and then the trick begins. It’s a trick of contained dynamism and stillness. The song is called ‘A Minor Place’ and it has a pretty melody. A key change hits and you realise the song has been trapping itself in, straining against itself and waiting for something to give which, inevitably, it does. The song leaves us with the lines:
“Singing from my little point
And aching in my every joint
I thank the world, it will anoint me
If I show it how I hold it”
Although his voice never rises above a relaxed, conversational pitch, this can be read as a statement of intent for the rest of the record, acknowledging an ambition which we can read as a bid for immortality. The contradictory elements of hubris and humility confound and entice the listener (or, at least, this listener).
The second track is ‘Nomadic Revery’. It’s an oxymoronic title, and the repeated line “It’s kept together moving all around” lays the paradox on thick. As the song builds, the lyrics become intimate and paranoid, yet are punctuated with a ‘Sympathy for the Devil’-like ‘Woo-woo’. (Let the record show that Bonnie “Prince” Billy not only expressed a raw, restless existential anguish on I See a Darkness, he also beat the Dandy Warhols to ‘Bohemian Like You’ by a year and half.)
Elsewhere, we have more pretty but creepy piano, a nonsense song stressing the difference between Fear and Dread, and this:
“Death to everyone is gonna come
And it makes hosing much more fun”
It seems pretty simple to parse this: ‘We’re gonna die, so let’s fuck’. It’s not the most elegant line on the record, but it’s presented as though it might be. Like that couplet from the title track, it places those two ideas – love and death – right next to each other. And they just sit there, locked in to one another. We’re used to love songs, but death is another matter.
Death isn’t unknown in pop songs of course, but it’s more ubiquitous here than in any album this side of the baroque fantasies of Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. On I See a Darkness, death isn’t really merged with love. That is, it isn’t employed metaphorically to make a point about love. It isn’t directly equated with sexual release, say, or with the depths of misery/ pitch of despair which might follow the death of a loved one. It’s just death, nothing but death.
This is so confronting that it’s tempting to regard I See a Darkness as a record about death. You do not need to look very far into the internet to find the theory that the album is a conversation with death from a singer on the brink of choosing to embrace it. It’s a theory which is hard to rebut in the face of lyrics like these, from ‘Black’:
“Black you are my enemy
And I cannot get close to thee
Our life is ruled by enmity
And I can’t weaken that
The only way that I can see
Is to hold you close to me
To love you for it’s meant to be
I weaken your attack”
“I weaken your attack”. Death is on the “attack”, and it is held off, at least temporarily. The singer does not yield to annihilation but makes a decision to love it: Death is accepted and integrated. Death does not overpower the singer, it becomes a part of him.
But the whole record circles around its mighty title track. On the surface, it is about a man opening up to his drinking buddy. He sits that buddy down and lays it all out. This isn’t another bull session, this time they’re getting down to brass tacks. The singer asks if his buddy has noticed his tendency towards dark thoughts, but expresses “a love for everyone I know” and a drive to live and not give in to the darkness. This is not just whisky-soaked solipsism. He is concerned for them both, hoping for peace, hoping they can stop their “whoring, and pull the smiles inside”. But all the while, there’s the darkness.
I hear it as an imagined conversation. Or more accurately, an idealised one. This is what the singer would like to be able to say to his friend but never will. It would reveal too much about both of them by drawing out the truths they work to obscure. The singer and his friend exist not in a state of comfort but of controlled dread, supporting one another in their denial of the inevitable.
‘I See A Darkness’ is not just what the singer wants to say, but who and more importantly, how he wants to be.
We aren’t always the best we can be, and we can feel this most keenly when it comes to the things that matter to us. Samir Khan’s immensely positive, ten-dot-zero review of I See a Darkness for Pitchfork is an example of such failure; he opens with an undisciplined burst of Hunter Thompson-like hyperbole and writhes through cliché before finally giving up, beaten by the record he’s trying to rave about. It’s a disappointing read but captures something of the way I See A Darkness arrests and dumbfounds its listeners:
“I’m firmly convinced Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new record, I See a Darkness, is not music. It doesn’t register in the familiar ways of a pop record (although conceptually speaking, it is one). You can’t dance to it, and… it makes you feel small.”
Typing that out, I feel a keen affinity with this guy. He and I are in thrall to the same spirits, and the record has beaten the both of us. He was beaten upon first listen, and I’m still being whupped 20 years later.
I realise that I feel uneasy about drawing conclusions on I See a Darkness for another reason. Will Oldham has consistently denied requests for his music to be used in film. I remember an interview where he talked about filmmakers trying to persuade him that their sensibilities matched, that his music would complement their vision perfectly. He objected to this very notion – there’s no way anyone could know what he was thinking when he wrote and recorded a song, and therefore there is no way any other person’s vision could fit with his.
I wonder what Will Oldham would say to the many people who have found this record to be a lifeline. I’ve read testimonials from people who say I See a Darkness has helped them ward off the temptation of death. There are people who will wake up tomorrow and attest that this record was what they needed to hear in order to stop and breathe, to call their loved ones, to shore up their own drive to live. Does it matter what one man’s artistic intentions were when the work he finally released into the world has reached a human life and saved it?
I See a Darkness is not about death. Nor is not in opposition to death, any more than it is opposition to love. It has let death in and lives with it, as we all must. Death to everyone is gonna come. In 1999, Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy wanted to connect with other mortal creations, to share “a drive to live” even as he stared into the lucid features of death. As another poet wrote 60 years earlier, “We must love one another or die”. Really, we must love one another and die. We love one another, maybe, because we die. We love one another, and we die. We love, we die. Love, die. Love.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.