I See a Darkness
I See a Darkness marked the debut of Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy nom de rock, which in the two decades since has become his primary moniker. Unceremonious in its sound, the album is a natural continuation of Oldham’s previous work as Palace Brothers and Palace Music—yet it was the most powerful and perfected realization of his songwriting to date. I See a Darkness was lauded by critics, fans, and, notably, many other artists; within a year of the album’s release, Johnny Cash would record a cover of the title track with Oldham singing backup, cementing his graduation from underground phenomenon to master of contemporary American songwriting. Darkness fused do-it-yourself indie rock and the American country folk-blues idiom with lyrics that are as spiritually raw as they are wry, all in a voice that was ragged, boyish, and tremulous.
Drawing from the vintage work of Merle Haggard, The Louvin Brothers, and modern R&B, the songs are mordant (“I See a Darkness”), eerie, corporeal, and sensual (“The scars of last year’s storm/Rest like maggots on my arm,” he sings on “A Minor Place”). The recurring, doomy theme of death’s inevitability is woven with lighter scenes of earthly connection: professions of love, of brotherly bond, by an invitation to get under someone’s dress (“Death to Everyone”). For all of the anxiousness and fear he voices on Darkness, Oldham got indie-rock songwriting out of its own head and lowered it down into the rest of the body with lyrics that were sometimes comically ribald (the itemized “buttock” of “Nomadic Revery [All Around]”) or explicitly sexual (“Knockturne”).
Within independent rock, I See a Darkness was a paradigm-shifting album, the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan of its era, with Oldham’s peculiar and publicity-averse now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t persona making him nearly as enigmatic. Its impact on the sound and style of Oldham’s peers was both immediate (including Björk, Cat Power, Wilco) and lasting (Songs: Ohia, Iron & Wine, Bon Iver, Father John Misty), ushering in an era of albums that strived toward similarly unadorned production, casual eroticism, and visceral intensity.