Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Title: I See A Darkness
Label: Palace Records
Catalogue Number: PR22
Year of Release: 1999
A1 A Minor Place (3:43)
A2 Nomadic Revery (All Around) (3:58)
A3 I See A Darkness (4:49)
A4 Another Day Full Of Dread (3:10)
A5 Death To Everyone (4:31)
B1 Knockturne (2:17)
B2 Madeleine-Mary (2:31)
B3 Song For The New Breed (3:23)
B4 Today I Was An Evil One (3:52)
B5 Black (3:45)
B6 Raining In Darling (1:52)
Much like my Adem review, I'm going to point you first of all to some other reviews, before adding my sketchy thoughts to the wealth of material already out there about this album.
So - the Pitchfork review (a full 10 points), Almost Cool's review (a mere 8.75), and the All Music Guide, which has one of those things by which you can listen to some snippets. I've also found a rather odd blog called Spurious, which has a post analysing the lyrics. I didn't necessarily agree with it, but it was an interesting find. And then there was the NME review, which I remember reading in the old paper-based format, and made me think I should probably buy it.
I didn't, but that was my mistake.
I first listened to the album a year or so later, it being a CD in the possession of my future wife. A girl who had heard of, let alone liked, both Autechre and Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, I thought was worth getting to know better. As is this album...
From opening theme-and-tone setter A Minor Place through to the uplifting closer Raining in Darling this singular collection of slow, dark, intimate songs showcase a singer-songwriter concerned with the very human themes of death, belief, being, love and, of course "hosing":
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
- Laying out his stall on A Minor Place, and saying you're going to get a very personal take on the themes, all backed by sparse drums, piano and guitars.
These themes come together beautifully in just the second track:
my brain it beams, it's here at all
and living, I must work
to make our lives here justified
and not let trouble lurk
o all around a left buttock
and all around a right
all around your every curve
I'm going to hold tonight
The joyous background whooping adding to a feeling of defiance in the face of human need, but also joy at having "an evening with someone nice to hide me".
And things frankly peak at the title track. You might have heard the late Johnny Cash's excellent version, a duet with Will, on his American Recordings III. Some have taken the lyrics to be a meditation on depression and suicide, some think it's about sobriety, others about brotherly love. I remember an interview where Will talks about a conversation with a friend who thought that people were one of two things 1) an essentially good person trying to do evil in the world or 2) an essentially evil person trying to do good. He had this conversation in mind when writing this song.
Another Day Full of Dread is, surprisingly, more uplifting ("ding! dong! a silly song"), and you need it after I See A Darkness - "by dread I'm inspired, by fear amused".
And then he ends the side with Death to Everyone. The detail from the lyric sheet I've included above shows the full lyrics - it's the picture with the five hanging bodies (I think these represent the band, by the way). A more life affirming song about mortality you're not likely to find. And absurdly catchy, with a la! la !la! section and middle-eight that I find myself singing for days afterwards ("death to all, and death to each"). Musically this track stands out from the others, heavily-effected guitar threatening to overpower the song at times, and no piano, but some synth-organ sound instead.
Side 2 continues in a similar vein, Knockturne a slow piano ballad with the eroticism of a disturbing dream. Madeleine Mary the most upbeat tempo-wise, but a tale of ship-based murder due to attempted rape nevertheless. Song For The New Breed, with words by film-maker Dianne Bellino (whose short film Slitch Will stars in) is taken from a screenplay that I'm guessing was never made, and I don't know why, but I thought was something to do with Clive Barker. I may be wrong in this too.
Now here is my sole original observation for this review: there are musical similarities in Today I Was An Evil One and the self-titled 1972 album of Bobby Charles (fan site here). I'm thinking particularly of Save Me Jesus from that album, it's something to do with the rolling piano backing. You heard it hear first!
Black is similar to the two tracks on the Patience single, being solo acoustic tracks with dark themes. You don't get much darker than black anyway, do you? And it's a similar thematic statement that he makes, which is ultimately positive:
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 what's meant to be
I weaken your attack
And finally, Raining in Darling. Piano, drums, strummed guitar, voice:
o it don't rain anymore
I go outside
where it's fun to be
The whole album rewards many further listens, as I suspect is true of Arise Therefore, but haven't got round to doing that yet. What Arise Therefore lacks is the stark humour and hope visible through the darkness so clearly on display here.