This Bonnie Prince Billy article was written by Tadgh Shiels, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Ben Kendall.
John Peel and Will Oldham (real name of Bonnie Prince Billy) were two figures who obviously shared a great degree of mutual respect. Praising his “fascinating existence in music treading a path between the traditional and the idiosyncratic,” Peel hosted Oldham a total of seven times between 1993 and 2002. ‘Pond Scum’ offers a smattering of the best results from three of these sessions, including some of Bonnie Prince Billy’s most well known tunes, such as the morbidly titled ‘Death to Everyone’ from the acclaimed 1999 album ‘I See a Darkness’. As well as more obscure material which Oldham first recorded under his Palace Music and Palace Brothers pseudonyms in the early nineties.
Instrumentation is pretty minimal; mostly consisting of Oldham accompanying himself on guitar, although musician David Heumann contributes some additional guitar, piano and backing vocals on the first four tracks. This makes the album rather top-heavy musically, although for a collection recorded over a period of eight years it is remarkably cohesive. The style remains largely unchanged and it hardly matters that the chronology of the sessions is reversed.
Oldham’s understated half sung, half spoken vocal delivery occasionally wanders vaguely off key, but this seems to be more of a stylistic choice than any lack of ability. At moments it sounds as if his voice is on the point of breaking in the middle of a phrase; such is the spasmodic oscillation of his vocal chords. An unsettling cover version of Prince’s ‘The Cross’ is the most potent example of this. At other times his delivery is more measured and melodic, as in a stripped-down version of ‘Arise Therefore’, first recorded under the Palace Music moniker in 1996.
In any case, darkly emotive story telling and poetry seems to be the main focus, and a few bum notes on the way certainly add more than detract from this. Drunkards stumble from church finding more solace in a bottle of whisky, and the inevitability of death is contemplated with a wry smile. Respite from these gloomy themes is offered in the form of ‘Jolly One’, a profoundly beautiful ode to bearing the soul through song, which describes tears of joy swelling in the singer’s eyes.
It is a pleasure to hear these songs performed in this more stripped-back manner. This album feels like a very intimate live solo performance, and removing some of the instrumental density gives greater intensity and clarity to the depth of the lyrics.
Far from being ‘scum’, this is a welcome collection of material which has formed atop of Oldham’s extensive pool of recordings. Those expecting a more polished and instrumentally diverse set of songs in the vein of Bonnie Prince Billy’s last album release, ‘Singers Grave a Sea of Tongues’, may be disappointed, but it is sure to please long-time fans and intrigue new listeners.
‘Pond Scum’ is out now via Drag City and Domino.