Will Oldham Discography: Entry #1, Part 1

(Palace, There Is No One What Will Take Care of You)
(Palace Brothers, Days In the Wake)

After reviewing Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy for PopMatters, I decided it was time to start an experiment I've always envisioned--listening to an artists' entire discography. And, of course, blogging about it to the excitement of absolutely no one.

To begin with, I'm biased towards Days In the Wake. I had never heard There Is No One before I started this bustling journey. And while it might be unfair to compare these two LPs together in the same post, I think they work together as a duo and as a primer to the realm of Will Oldham's music.

There Is No One is brazen in its amateurishness. Oldham's voice cracks several times on key tracks, tempos shift sporadically, and the mix could never be defined as "clear." On songs like "King Me" and "I Tried to Stay Healthy For You," Oldham's vocals are frustratingly buried underneath louder acoustic instruments that reach into the higher, ear-piercing registers of your brain. (Especially that slide guitar that shows up on "O Paul" which somehow manages to jab a nerve repeatedly when it shows up.) It's a understandable move; Oldham sounds vocally confident on some tracks, but nearly as much as he does on Days In the Wake. This is, after all, his first recorded material. Prior to this he was starring in films and theater productions. Most artists work hard on their early albums to mask the singers' voice. Lennon famously double-tracked his vocals at almost every chance he got because he didn't like the way he sounded and Jimi Hendrix never believed that he was able to sing at all, hence all the spoken phrases in his songs. But Oldham definitely has a go-for-broke delivery on There Is No One, and some of the best tracks are the ones where he sounds like he doesn't give a fuck how his voice sounds: opener "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings," "King Me" with it's spoken pulpit-sermon bridge, and "Riding" with all its low-register menace and lyrically vague notions of incest.

Then there's "I Was Drunk At the Pulpit," a song made up entirely of one chord on acoustic guitar and Oldham's singing. One chord and one only. And there are natural times when a chord change is warranted, but Oldham ignores them, instead forging ahead with his lone chord like it's him and his guitar against a hostile audience. It's more than clear that Oldham is finding his way through the songwriting process, feeling in the dark for some solid form to grab hold of. But it does feel like Oldham threw out the rules, decided on simplicity only, and made a record just to see if he could. Who knew that such simple beginnings would take him to where he is now?

Highlight Track: Tie between "Idle Hands Are the Devil's Playthings" for just being a great song that gets stuck in your head and "Riding" because it sounds like a Bonnie "Prince" Billy song before BPB existed.

Weakest Track: For some reason, "O Lord Are You In Need?" turns me off. Too plodding? Too repetitive?

Strangest Moment: Probably waiting in vain for the chord to change in "I Was Drunk at the Pulpit"

Other Stray Observations:
  • "Long Before" definitely feels like it is six minutes long. It's a big let down and momentum killer after "Idle Hands"
  • "There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You" is sung by someone else--but I don't know who.
  • "Merida" is oddly forgettable. I was hoping based on its title that it wouldn't be.
  • "King Me" was apparently Oldham trying to be Solomon Burke. 
  • "I Had a Good Mother and Father" is a cover song by Washington Phillips. Gilliam Welch also covers it on Soul Journey but it is listed as "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father." I would not have known that without first reading Will Oldham on Bonnie "Prince" Billy