Don’t be fooled by appearances, I’m still deep in my heavy phase. I’m going to start talking about Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s seminal nineties work of abject misery by talking about his most famous contemporary, Johnny Cash. Approach things from odd angles kids, see what you still think about things. The title track from I See a Darkness was covered by Cash in his American III – Solitary Man and it’s been troubling me for a while. Cash’s harsh over-the-hill back woods country bar singer filled with cigarillo smoke and cheap whiskey suited the disquieting surreality of the lyrics of Hurt, but when compared to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s original version, a song which is ultimately about the death of love receives through Cash’s rocky vocals a touch of distance, that same over the hill singer has seen his share of pain and this is just pain heaped on pain; Billy’s vocal is crucially different, he seems quiet, needy and vulnerable. When Cash sings about heartbreak, it is a statement about the futility of the human condition, the darkness of the spirit; when Billy sings the line “Don’t you know how much I love you?”, it makes you want to cry. It’s a eulogy from someone only loving and losing for the first time.
Often times I prefer instrumental trips to vocal-fronted ones. Vocals can tend to clutter up the construction of music, but with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, the vocal is all. An angsty, hollowed, cold and frighteningly vulnerable high warble expected to be combined with a small frame and little permanently tearful eyes taking up more than they should in a friendly unshaven face. Rarely does this voice hold power, it is like Billy himself, a quiet and accepting intellectual nomadic bum. Billy has been known to tour with nothing but the clothes on his back and his trademark coffee mug. Life doesn’t get any more routine around him in the studio environment, legendary producer Steve Albini said to Rolling Stone in 1996, “He doesn’t rehearse… He chooses the people he’s going to play with shortly before the session, so everyone is playing by the seat of their pants, and the music is at constant risk, subject to the weaknesses of whoever’s in the room. But he gets absolutely spontaneous moments of greatness you couldn’t rehearse”. I See a Darkness in particular is one of his highest praised, capturing in my opinion some of his most poignant moments and most heartbreaking vocals.
I was listening to this album in preparation for this week’s article, when my phone rang. I want to pick it up, and felt compelled to put the record off before answering. It wasn’t I was ashamed, I told them what I’d been listening to and we discussed it but it just didn’t feel right to leave the record spinning. I’ve answered the phone to a backing of the Melvins, Sunn O))) and all other manner of musical darktrips, but something about I See a Darkness is really deeply private. The moments on this album require dedication. You can’t do anything while listening to this album, you must dedicate yourself to it because there is the deepest sense that Billy is pouring out his heart into these songs. More than Sunn O))) or Coalesce or Amia Venera Landscape, Billy, with his single delicate voice and his simple instrumentation encapsulates real genuine pitch darkness.
I See a Darkness doesn’t open, or close, and there is nothing in the middle of any structure. The songs do not begin in any way, they simply move into being like falling asleep. To ascertain the moment is impossible, yet if you could only find that moment it would all make sense.
Though apparelled in the accoutrements of a pop music record, even a single listen to I See a Darkness will reveal multiple layers of complex darkness it will take weeks and many listens to unravel and come to terms with. Certainly it is an experience in pop clothing, and that’s part of what makes it so very special. I am reminded of High Fidelity. ‘Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?’
Written under duress by Steven