I remember the first time I ever listened to Bob Dylan. I had expressed an interest in his music to my father when I was younger and a couple of days later, my dad came home with his greatest hits CD. It was love at first sight, and as I’ve had more opportunities to delve deeper into his discography, it’s only re-affirmed my love of the power of folk music. While an unhealthy proportion of folk music is seen as hippies playing acoustic guitars in coffee shops, there’s still fantastic folk music being written today by artists like The Decemberists or The Weepies. I just finished listening to an album that is now considered a seminal piece of indie folk music, Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness. Through a skillful combination of a wide array of influences and a master’s understanding of song composition, I See a Darkness was an instant classic (for those who heard it) that positioned Bonnie “Prince” Billy to be to folk what Wilco was to country.
As mentioned, I See a Darkness is a folk album by indie artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy (one of the many names that Will Oldham has performed under over the years). However, this album is about as much pure folk as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was pure country, which is to say, this album incorporates a wide array of sounds into its overall production. While I mentioned Bob Dylan at the beginning of this review, he really isn’t the first folk artist that springs to mind when I here I See a Darkness. My first thoughts honestly are what if you combined the country-rock of The Band with the singer-songwriting prowess of artists like Jeff Buckley or Elliot Smith. While the instrumental influences range from country-rock to blues to traditional folk arrangements, they are all presented in a simple and unimposing structure that belies some considerable complexity in orchestration. From a lyrical perspective, I can’t help but think of the dark and introspective nature of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and the lyrics are a considerable asset of the album as Will Oldham is a considerable poet on some rather bleak themes.Perhaps one of his strongest assets is his ability to write unpretentious but powerful songs with intelligent lyrics that still manage to have hooks to make nearly every song memorable.
At eleven tracks and just over 40 minutes, I See a Darkness is a textbook example of how to keep your album at the perfect length. Every track is fantastic although some stick with you longer than others. My favorite song on the album was “Madeleine-Mary” which was classic hook-driven folk-rock. While it perhaps had his most conventional instrmentation, it also was a phenomenal showcase for his unique voice and balladic song-writing. On “Today I Was an Evil One” he channels more of the country-folk sound that I associate with The Decemberists and only served to re-affirm my Wilco comparisons. “Raining in Darling” was a simply beautiful but subtle tale of love. “Death to Everyone” manages to turn a song about how we all will die somebody into the second catchiest song on the album which is an impressive feat. Much like Wilco, he also manages to incorporate some sonic elements to his normal folk/rock/country arrangements which add another layer of depth to already impressive musical ambitions.
If you’re a fan of folk music, whether this be Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Decemberists, Elliot Smith, or the Weepies, etc, then this album needs to move to the top of your listen queue. Folk has never really received the attention it deserves from people my age (early 20’s) except within certain circles, but this album is shining example of the power the genre can still hold. Sure, it was released over a decade ago, but its has age has done absolutely nothing to diminish its strength or power. A very large number of the albums I will be reviewing for this blog are going to come from the indie music spectrum and this album is proof of the sheer talent and entertainment that can be derived from musicians that the average person has probably never heard of. I’m looking forward to my chance to listen to more of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s music (or Will Oldham’s other acts for that matter) as this album was an instant classic.
Final Score: A