Back in the days before Youtube’s recommended videos and NPR Tiny Desk concerts there was John Peel. More force of nature than man, Peel’s influence on the listening habits of a nation are simply unparalleled, and the fact that recordings of his radio sessions are still being collected and released more than a decade after his death is evidence of his lasting impact both on independent musicians and on their listeners. What was unique about Peel’s radio shows were their willingness to champion underground bands, ‘difficult’ artists, and anything a little bit new, a little bit different.
Will Oldham certainly fits in the pigeonholes marked ‘different’ and ‘underground’, and arguably into the ‘difficult’ one too. He recorded a bunch of songs with Peel at the start of his career – the early to mid nineties – when he was going by the name Palace Music, or Palace Brothers, or simply Palace. That he has chosen to release them under his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker could be seen as an invitation for the listener to locate these performances alongside his more recent work rather than simply identifying them with the albums from which they came. Opener (I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit certainly takes a more leisurely route than its Palace Brothers original, and in this respect it does begin to resemble Oldham’s later work. But this strung-out one-chord wonder has always been something of a law unto itself: a semi-stream of consciousness that deals with its narrator’s ambiguous relationship with Christianity is both surreal and harshly real, recalling the desert-baked,visceral, violent and hallucinogenic stories of Mexican writer Juan Rulfo. That this version of Pulpit is somehow roomier and more resigned somehow taps into that ambiguity even more strongly.
Death To Everyone is similarly time-worn, its angry tautness softened into crows-feet of resigned acceptance, the certainty of its message tested and ultimately strengthened by age. ‘You can see me ageing’ croaks Oldham, and we very nearly can. Arise, Therefore – another Palace Brothers staple – is almost jolly by comparison, which is more than can be said for the first of the first of two songs from the Get On Jolly ep, originally recorded with the help of Dirty Three’s Mick Turner. Jolly 5 is an enigmatic, plotless short story set to minimal guitar, softly sung (almost spoken, in fact) and with more than a hint of American Gothic about. It is a surprising highlight. Jolly One (2-15) is much lighter and more tender in tone, although by the last line he is back to his self-deprecating best: ‘My life is just to sit here and sing these songs that have no purpose.’
Splitting the two ‘Jolly’ tracks is the previously unreleased Beezle, which is notable for its restraint. Where Oldham usually goes for the tortured vocal, here he reins it in, and the effect is a welcome and pleasant change. This softer approach is continued on When Thy Song Flows Through Me, a take on an old devotional chant that gets its power from the accumulation of simple, universal statements. It is clear from songs like this that Oldham’s relationship with religion is close and important, but as to the exact nature of that relationship he remains wilfully elusive. In songs like Pulpit he seems to be tackling the incongruities of the pain and rapture of old time American Christianity, whereas When Thy Song Flows Through Me sees the narrator as a passive, willing tool of a more pantheistic variant of divinity.
Elsewhere we are treated to comparatively straight-up versions of early Palace singles, including the wonderfully cryptic O How I Enjoy The Light (here entitled The Houseboat), the darkly playful Trudy Dies and the Bryan Rich-penned Stable Will. Most intriguing though is a brief, impassioned cover of Prince’s The Cross. Oldham and Prince share more than a partial pseudonym: both have built long and at times excellent careers around the ambiguity of identity. Photographs of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy often show him squinting in the light of a real or imagined sun, his brow shiny with the sweat of the boozer, the fervent preacher, the madman or the honest labourer. It is to his credit that he can carry off of these guises, and on this timely collection we are offered new and tantalising views of them all.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Pond Scum is released via Domino Records Jan 22nd 2016