(Darkness by Toni Blay)
Random play all. Even 5 years ago these words would have had little of the meaning they have today. I don't know what an iPod says in this situation, but on my mp3 player, random play all signifies listening-to-loads-of-songs-you-don't-normally-listen-to, and today, I'm going to write a post about that.
Basically because I'm at work but have run out of things to do to occupy myself.
So, the first track that comes up when I shuffle my mp3's is Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's I See A Darkness, from the album of the same name. I first got a hold of this album when I went through a spate of listening to the darker, more morbid side of things - we're not talking Venom, or Spear Of Destiny, or whatever, but the album is pretty bleak. Song titles like Death To Everyone, Black, and A Minor Place don't tend to suggest flowers and kittens; don't expect any covers of Happy Talk, or anything. But don't death and it's related subjects make the best subjects for art? The only room at the Tate Modern where I felt I could actually understand all the exhibits was the Memento Mori room, aka DEATH HOUSE (my subtitle). And isn't every murder ballad automatically a classic? From Johnny Cash's (of whom more later) Folsom Prison Blues to Nick Caves Where The Wild Roses Grow, from Le Moz's darkly romantic There Is A Light... to the evergreen Hey Joe (find a more extensive list here), death is, undeniably, a great subject.
Whether I See A Darkness is about The End is debatable. In my mind it's more than likely that Mr Oldham wasn't thinking about frogspawn and chicken eggs when he wrote "then I see a darkness." It's not as explicit as some of his tracks, but as a statement of intent - as the title track of an album should be - it's extremely suitable. There's an undercurrent in the song, that out there somewhere is hope and gladness and redemption, but it's tempered by a savage realism suggesting the song's protagonist ain't going to find it all that easily.
I was expecting the album to entrench itself very deeply, before I bought it. I purchase it on the strength of the title track and A Minor Place, and yes, I do like it very much - I certainly have no other records quite like it. But it hasn't really settled in my mind as much as some other, perhaps less expected records, have - I can recall some, but certainly not all tracks. There's some classic, wonderful, awesome moments (I See A Darkness, Death To Everyone) but apparently I've missed what everybody else has found. Perhaps it needs more time, maybe one day I'll give it what it deserves. It's still obviously a fantastic record, but not - for me at least - life-changing. It hasn't, for example, caused me to seek out the rest of Oldham/Palace/Billy's vast and varied catalogue.
I See A Darkness the song, however, is another matter. It isn't bitter, it isn't overly morbid, it has hope and balance, it has subtility of lyric and music, it has everything a classic song needs, making it a classic. Not to mention it's more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts emotional resonance, something which causes it to stand up as one of the greatest songs of the last ten years. It's become something more than it was now due to the exposure as covered (in duet) by one John R Cash on American Recordings III. That rendition lifted both the profile of the song, and the credibility/respect awarded to Johnny Cash by a country mile and has become maybe the finest and best-loved of his wonderful covers. Cash's late-era covers didn't always work, but a good few of them exceeded the original (Hurt comes to mind). I See A Darkness didn't necessarily better Oldham's original, but it's still a phenomenal and beautiful piece. I think you should go and listen to both versions now.
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - I See A Darkness
Johnny Cash (feat. Will Oldham) - I See A Darkness
Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy/Johnny Cash
Recommended: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - I See A Darkness/Johnny Cash - Solitary Man: American III
Buy: Amazon BPB/JC
More: Hype Machine BPB/JC; elbo.ws BPB/JC
If you like this you might like: Steve Adey - All Things Real
Tags: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy; Will Oldham; Palace; Johnny Cash; death; darkness; cover