‘Sometimes you just feel like God put another anvil on your back and that the best thing to do would be to fall forward and let it crush your ribs’ – Will Oldham on Bonnie Prince Billy
Will Oldham does not like doing interviews. This is made apparent from the quotes the editor of this book, Alan Licht, chooses to open his introduction with. The introduction, then, serves as a kind of explanation as to why Oldham agreed to a set of interviews so long that, even when edited right down, they still comes to over three-hundred pages. Firstly, Oldham and Licht are long-time buddies so it can be assumed that Oldham would be much more comfortable being interviewed by him and that the interviews would read more like interesting conversations between friends. Licht is also a musician involved in the same scene as Oldham, so again, he would be able to have the kind of insight that many other journalists would not have. Finally, Licht writes that Oldham ideally wanted to create one source in which to answer the frequently asked questions that seem to come up about his music, his acting and his life. So, a kind of definitive volume featuring everything a fan might want to know, the first and perhaps last word on the artist of many monikers. Which is fine but right away, it does produce high expectation for the book itself. I went into the body of the book expecting great things. After all, when done well, a music biography can not only create a deeper understanding of the music itself but can also be an engrossing and powerful read in its own right. I’m thinking here of David Brown’s Dream Brother: The Life and Music of Tim and Jeff Buckley, which is beautifully written, fascinating and difficult to put down.
I was disappointed. First of all, after the introduction, the rest of the book is formatted as a long question and answer session, with no edifying comments beyond a few footnotes. The interviews are broken up into chapters and follow a vague time-line from Oldham’s childhood to his most recent recordings. Clearly, Oldham and Licht know each other pretty well; everything is very amicable throughout and Will responds enthusiastically to Alan’s analysis of his work and his similarly esoteric taste in music and films. But when all is said and done, it turns out that when Oldham is comfortable enough to engage in lengthy interviews, he isn’t as interesting as you’d expect. It’s not that he never says anything interesting. He speaks eloquently about how, for example, negative emotions expressed in song become their own positive entity:
Because at the end of the day sometimes you just feel like God put another anvil on your back and that the best thing to do would be to fall forward and let it crush your ribs, just give it right there. But as long as there is some sort of harmony going on with another being, if another being is creating some music or conversation, even if it’s harmony about this momentary or permanent bleak existence, it can give colour and nuance and vitality to something that seems like it would inherently be the opposite.
However, the trouble is that the book could have been edited down significantly to give more emphasis to these moments of wit and insight. As it stands, they easily get lost amongst the fluff, the endless digressions which, at their worst, come across as self-indulgent. Finally comfortable with speaking in interviews, Oldham says entirely too much. To be fair, much of the blame for this may fall on Licht as the editor. After all, he chose to include as much of the material as he did. I can appreciate that doing so may originate in the noble desire to present Oldham to the world, raw and uncensored. But really, most readers can work out for themselves the consequences of editorial authority on the text they’re reading. It isn’t always a bad thing and in the case of this book, it is actually sorely needed. Too often, Oldham’s musings are little more than thinking out loud or colouring in unnecessary detail. Licht certainly encourages him with his questions:
On ‘May It Always Be’ I noticed there were three ‘stay with me’s and three ‘we’ll play bride’s’ and three ‘won’t we be’, which is I think the only instance where you do something where you do something like that in a song.
Is anyone really interested in this level of GCSE-style close reading? Perhaps I’m just a big enough Will Oldham fan. Perhaps the nuts-and-bolts of song writing would be interesting to fellow song writers, I don’t know. But for me, it just brings home the fact that hearing the artist talk about their songs is never going to be as appealing as the songs themselves. It’s easy to forget. Oldham is an excellent example of the mystique that tends to surround those artists who rarely do press interviews. To be fair to him, he draws a very firm line between himself and the figure that narrates his songs:
They were seeking some sort of individual responsible for things, and I was just like, ‘OK. We’ll make one up. One who doesn’t really exist, and therefore I can continue to feel confident that there is no individual responsible for things, but you can think that there is one!’
But sometimes you don’t need to hear that there is nothing but a man behind the curtain. You already know that anyway but really buying into a song involves that suspense of disbelief. That is what makes it feel like the hope, the life raft, the honest to God salvation, that Oldham expresses in the first quote I included. Sometimes, all the talking and explaining just gets in the way of the music weaving that kind of magic and this book is at least two hundred pages too much talking.
Any Cop?: For the diehard fan that pores over Oldham’s lyrics with fascination, this one is worth reading. For the rest of us, there is little to be gained other than some excellent music and film recommendations and a renewed desire to forget the all too human singer and focus on the song itself.
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- June 18, 2012 / 3:06 pm