In 1987, a young Will Oldham played a teenage preacher in John Sayles's 1920s-era West Virginia labor drama Matewan, and in a sense he's never stopped playing him. It was an incredibly affecting performance (perhaps the best in a film not hurting for great performances), and one in which Oldham -- with his lantern jaw and slightly feverish, bulge-eyed demeanor -- clearly felt comfortable with, so comfortable, perhaps, that he just decided to be that guy forever.
Under the various monikers Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Bonny Billy, and, most often, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Oldham -- a Louisville, Kentucky native who, incidentally, took the photograph adorning the cover of Slint's epochal Spiderland -- has produced album after album of country-inflected, folk-damaged Americana, beginning with 1993's There is No-One What Will Take Care of You. I'm a pretty big fan of Oldham's many incarnations, but Viva Last Blues, his third album and the second using the Palace Music alias, is far and away my favorite, featuring all of Oldham's best tendencies (abstract yet achingly evocative lyrics, timeless-seeming melodies that feel dredged up from the earth itself) with few of his more common shortcomings (preciousness, forced authenticity). Viva Last Blues is a gorgeous, well-paced, almost cinematic assembly of songs preoccupied with death, loneliness, and deliverance.
"More Brother Rides" kicks off the Steve Albini-produced album with a woozy beat (drums are handled throughout by Sebadoh's Jason Lowenstein), sporadic barroom piano, and wavering guitar, as Oldham -- his voice recalling backwoods Appalachian winds and haunted wilderness homesteads -- croaks along with building fervor, "Friends come by and spend some hours/ And then back down to working/ At night, things come and have a life/ Not so silly, walking." The song sets the tone for the rest of the record: desperate, antiquated, celebratory, cracked.
"The Brute Choir," with its haunted waltz cadence and gently troubling melody is desolate and beautiful, Oldham mourning, "I never hurt someone so young/ And I never held someone so sweet/ Makes me want to holler with them/ All the way down." It's an album highlight. The next track, "The Mountain Low," is pretty hilarious, and sounds like Oldham poking fun at his own old-timey high-lonesome persona, as he sings (with a barely concealed smile), "If I could fuck a mountain/ Lord, I would fuck a mountain/ And I'd do it with a woman/ Of value." It's a lighthearted moment on an album heavy with foreboding and dread, a ray of light into an abandoned and darkening room.
A dolorous ballad of betrayal and revenge, "Tonight's Decision (And Hereafter)" is one of the most gutting tunes on Viva Last Blues. As the various instruments piece together a rickety accompaniment, Oldham asks "Where are my friends?/ And where is my family?" before desperately answering his own question: "They've all gone away/ And it is I who have left them." "Work Hard/Play Hard" follows it up with a far brighter tone and a rollicking rhythm, joyously crunchy guitars and crashing cymbals punctuating Oldham's crazily uplifting vocals. It's what passes here for a party jam.
And then comes "New Partner," one of the best songs Oldham -- or anyone, really -- could ever hope to compose. It's a gently driving lullaby, with an otherworldly melody and incredible lyrics mapping out a faltering relationship with alarmingly precise images and phrases. "Well I would not have moved if I'd known you were here/ It's some special action with motives unclear/ Now you'll haunt me, you'll haunt me 'til I've paid for what I've done/ It's a payment which precludes the having of fun" crushingly declares Oldham, laying the listener to waste with his wounded delivery. A thing of rare and perfect beauty, this, to which the remainder of the record -- while certainly excellent -- cannot help but pale in comparison.
I've listened to a lot of Will Oldham over the years, much of which I've found irritating even as I've enjoyed it. Viva Last Blues is different, though, capturing Oldham at the height of his powers, nailing his specific shtick with a grace and elegance he's never attained, in my humble opinion, again. This is his Platonic ideal.