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Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind

One of the more remarkable releases of the year may well end up being Little Lost Blues, an EP-length CD attached to indie store copies of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's The Letting Go. Collecting some single sides, unreleased tracks, and other material already classified "bonus," it serves as a de facto Lost Blues 3, a title that's been murmured under the breath of obsessed fans for years. In the perverse manner that listeners have come to demand from the artist, the CD only partially collects some singles, and leaves off several key tracks. Nevertheless, given the quality of the material, its reappearance, however truncated, is more than welcome.

Appearing in the summer of '98 on Chicago's All City label as part of their geographic 7" series (All City Nomad, natch), the debut single from Will Oldham's latest pseudonym opened up a new chapter in his wayward ouevre. "Black Dissimulation" and "No Such As What I Want" were originally recorded as part of the abandoned Palace Rose project (Will Oldham + Dirty Three). What Little Lost Blues does not reproduce, unfortunately, are Oldham's own comments on the songs, found on each side's label. The notes for "Black Dissimulation," the track chosen to represent the single here, read as follows: "this is as close to as I'll ever get to Nostalgia hopefully: the events portrayed are alternately terrible and good but I've tried to rose them all up for you equally." This is typical abstruseness from Oldham. I think he's gotten increasingly soft (lyrically and compositionally) with the continued reign of BPB, and in retrospect, this note seems to indict much of his future output. Of course it's only one side of the coin -- flip over to the single's b-side for one of his classically terse lines: "this portrait of a cold bitch was spurred on by the question who has time for tragedy" (see also: the UK-only Palace EP, An Arrow Through the Bitch).

Now, I always liked that b-side, "No Such As What I Want," and all its thorny implication, a whole lot better, but listening to "Black" now, I see a little more in the way of genuine risk-taking. The song wheedles its way around like something off Astral Weeks, cascading verses threatening, but never establishing, a conjunctive chorus. Within, Oldham finds subtle gradation of light, shading lines with a stark exposition here, a gentle reflection there. Oldham's strange and sometimes tortured syntax ("to find a young dog has swolled a ball") only enriches his cadence. By paying attention to his voicing from line to line -- a gift from his acting career -- he automatically sounds more interesting than most indie singers out there.

"Black"'s warm, simple melody -- a frequent accompaniment pre-'Prince,' and an often bitched-about artifact of his sophmoric guitar skillz -- only helps belie the song's subject matter: concealment, denial, and ignorance. Both the black and the dissimulation are keenly felt throughout. It is the sentiment of one who finds himself acting automatically, reacting to instead of receiving the world around him ("whether it is to protect or deny / one is not told and one asks not why"). The response is not amoralism, but a ramped-up ethical approach, all knee-jerk politics and blowback, "ignoring the stupid and hating the silence / disliking the prurient, disdaining the violence. " The experience of life turns into a game; as one becomes bound to predetermined methods of processing information, an open mind reverts to a closed system, a feedback loop. Realizing the mean cheapness of this approach, contempt becomes limitless, even self-directed ("take it whenever you get it -- you think / you're unlucky ever to get it all").

While Oldham no longer approaches his material as freshly as this, it's good to see that he recognizes that it still deserves an audience.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Black Dissimulation