he Desert Island album has always struck me as a pretty strange cultural phenomenon. Not exactly a "favorite album" and not exactly "the best album", the whole premise hinges on a convoluted and impossibly unlikely scenario. The very suggestion that an album would be of any importance on a desert island is indicative of music geekdom of the very worst kind – which is why music geeks of the very worst kind are usually the people who refer to desert island discs in the first place.
Of course most music geeks, myself included, wouldn’t last five minutes on a desert island. Within the first few days, I’m sure I’d wind up throwing myself off a cliff, eating a poisonous plant, or being mauled to death by a vicious beast of some kind. But this isn’t an actual, real-life scenario being discussed – it’s a pop culture construct. And, having seen my share of desert island-related TV shows and movies, I’ve come up with a few general guidelines for fictional desert island scenarios:
1) Nobody who is single or unattached ever winds up on a stranded desert island, unless he or she is stranded with other single or unattached individuals
2) Desert island scenarios invariably give their subjects a deeper understanding of life’s more basic machinations
3) Nobody stranded on a desert island ever dies
Given these parameters, a desert island album isn’t exactly an album to die to, but rather an album to enjoy while facing death, and winding up with a greater understanding of life. Were I to choose an album to actually be stranded with on a desert island, I’d probably pick something so blissfully strange and inane that it would almost prepare me for my own imminent death – something, perhaps, like the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World or Gary Wilson’s You Think You Really Know Me. But a real “Desert Island album” should be more substantive than that – something that covers just about every spot on the spectrum of human emotion, from despair to comfort to hope, and all points in-between. An album that’s universal without being trite or resorting to cliché. And most importantly, an album that leaves you wanting to back away from the cliff, rather than jumping off.
Not many albums are capable of even approaching such emotional depth, and most of the albums that do are too disconcerting or depressing to qualify. There are very few artists who are willing to approach the topics of joy and hope with the same depth and seriousness as those of misery, loneliness, and death. But, over the course of several brilliant albums, Will Oldham has managed to address all these topics with skill and grace. “New Partner” from Viva Last Blues manages to be at once entirely comforting and entirely upsetting. “I Send My Love To You” from Days in the Wake is perhaps as good an approximation of the convergence between romanticism and loneliness as has ever been recorded.
Though Will Oldham’s career is dotted with moments of pure perfection, none of his albums, when taken as a whole, even begin to carry the weight and depth of his greatest release, recorded under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker, I See A Darkness. Oldham has always displayed an incredible gift for making wildly moving music that draws on some of the oldest musical and lyrical traditions, and on I See A Darkness he cuts right to the two topics that run thematically through most of the world’s musical history, as well as the two topics he seems most adept at addressing: sex and death. And throughout the album’s 11 tracks, he tackles these topics with enough insight and intimacy to make I See A Darkness deserving of desert island album status.
“A Minor Place,” “Nomadic Revery (All Around),” and “I See a Darkness” open the album with what could be the three greatest songs Oldham as ever recorded. As with all of I See A Darkness, these three songs are sparse but rich, perfectly splitting the difference between the splintered lo-fi of Days in the Wake and the more heavily produced sound of Viva Last Blues. Piano, guitar, bass, and drums are all kept at a bare minimum volume, as Oldham’s slightly reverb-tinged voice, mic’ed so closely that you can hear his breathing almost as loudly as his words, to take center stage.
And Oldham’s voice has never sounded as affecting as it does on I See A Darkness. While still prone to breaking as on earlier recordings, Oldham’s voice seems to carry with it a kind of weathered maturity on I See A Darkness. The topic of death is central to Oldham’s music, but on I See A Darkness, he finally sounds like a man who’s actually faced it. Lyrically, Oldham reaches new heights of maturity as well. “A Minor Place,” with its beautiful piano flourishes and multitracked vocals, tell of a place that is “Not a desert, nor a web / Nor a tomb where I lay dead / Minor in a sound alone / Yes a clear, commanding tone.” Good lyrics on their own, but rendered even more poignant given that there isn’t a single minor chord to be found in “A Minor Place.”
“Nomadic Revery” starts out more sparse than “A Minor Place,” with an intermittent bass drum providing the pulse for Oldham’s rambling singing. Then, about halfway through the song, it builds to an absolutely wrenching crescendo, as Oldham’s Appalachian roots come through more clearly than ever with impassioned howling and rousing “woo woo”’s. Bob Arellano’s fractured guitar work finishes off the song wonderfully, allowing the incredible momentum that the song has built to splinter off.
Following up “Nomadic Revery” is the album’s title track – the strongest on I See a Darkness, and quite possibly the best in Oldham’s entire oeuvre. With a direct and haunting chorus of “And then I see a darkness / Did you know how much I love you / There’s a hope that somehow you / Will save me from this darkness,” “I See a Darkness” sees its protagonist hoping that a good friend will be able to save him from death. During the bridge of the song, which provides the emotional centerpiece for the record, Oldham sings, “Well I hope that some day, buddy / We have peace in our lives / Together or apart / Alone or with our wives / We can stop our whoring / And pull the smiles inside / And light it up forever / And never go to sleep / My best unbeaten brother,” perfectly encapsulating the thematic material of the record.
After finding a kind of sadistic comfort in death with “Death to Everyone,” and addressing its more mythological side with “Madeline Mary,” Oldham finishes I See a Darkness with “Raining in Darling,” a final burst of unabashed romanticism that closes the album out on a note of resignation and hope. An album with a skull on its cover closes with the line “I know you love me / I know you do,” delivered without a hint of sarcasm or irony, and it all makes perfect sense. By the time “Raining in Darling” rolls around, Oldham has looked at death from many angles; terror, confusion, even glee – but rather than succumbing to either its frightfulness or its seductiveness, Oldham rather finds himself comfortable enough with death to accept it and find pleasure in life.
The way I envision it, “A Minor Place” would be playing as I begin to explore the island, still too shocked and dazed to really consider the gravity of my situation. “I See a Darkness” would be playing right when I stand on the edge of a massive rock, looking out at the endless sea and wondering whether or not I’d be better off joining it. The skeletal “Black” would play as I lie desperate and filthy on the beach, and “Raining in Darling” would play as I slowly wake to the sound of an ocean liner passing by to carry me back to my home and my significant other (see desert island rule #1).
Of course, the true beauty of I See a Darkness is that, by addressing concepts so grand with such sincerity and skill, the album is incredibly powerful under even the most mundane of circumstances. At the end of a desert island journey, the protagonist typically returns to civilization with a newfound appreciation for his world and the people in it. Like the story of a desert island survivor, I See a Darkness is a powerful testament to the will to live, even in the face of endless uncertainty and doubt. Unlike most desert island stories, I See a Darkness actually succeeds.