Review Summary: I See A Darkness - with its bleak instrumentation and memorably morose lyrics - is a nearly flawless album, one that takes the listener on a journey through isolated forests and a wide range of emotions.
It's been cloudy all day, and the temperature has remained a dismal forty-five degrees Fahrenheit. The sky is barren; all the birds have taken solace elsewhere, their nests abandoned and their trees empty. Brown, dry, and desperately thirsty, the dying grass is crying out to the stagnant stormclouds that have tempted for hours with the occasional drop of rain. The cry is unanswered, however. Rain can never come to soothe this desolate wasteland. A dog barks in the distance. He has just freshly killed a beautiful hare and is proudly bringing it back to his master who lives alone in a homemade cabin. "We'll have rabbit for dinner tonight, buddy," the master says to his only friend, who is incapable of returning the statement. All the dog, a golden retriever whose age is slowly catching up to him, can think is pure love of the highest form. The dog knows that he is the only thing holding this lonesome man together.
After a silent supper - save for the vengeful wind that always seems to settle in around nightfall - the master tucks the faithful retriever under a bundle of sheets, for there is no fire. "Stay put here, okay?" he says. "I'll be back in a minute with some wood." He hestitates for a moment, then leans down to caress the old dog's head, allowing it to lick his hand in gratitude for the meal. The man feels a tear drip off of his face, and suddenly wants only to curl up with his companion and brave the night away. He stands up, though, and says, "I'm sorry, bud, but I have to go now. The wind's picking up. I'll be back real soon."
As the man collects enough fuel to last through the frigid night, he ruminates on his condition. He wonders whether he should ever return to where he came from, but decides against it; besides, the closest highway is more than seventy miles away, an arduous trek and one that his friend would not be able to complete. He considers suicide, but again decides against it. He lowers his wood to the ground, already blanketed with a thin layer of snow, and undoes his pants zipper to take a piss. Chuckling, he contemplates an image of his urine freezing into an arc of yellow ice, but soon realizes the chill is no laughing matter. He swiftly finishes the task before him, brushes the white snow from his wood idly resting on the dead ground, and, firewood in hand, rushes back to his lair. The sky is darkening, and the man takes note of it.
He uncovers his companion; the fire is blasting, just in time to beat the full fury of the hateful evening. With the flames glowing on his face, the man manages to crack a grin. Now he can perform for the fire. Now he can perform for his dog. Now he can perform for the forest. Truly, he is one with nature. He feels the wind's anger; he understands pain. Indeed, Will Oldham sees a darkness, and a bleak one at that. With an tragically sorrowful guitar in hand, the man's voice echoes through the forest in a series of sorrowful dirges that wrack the dead trees and cry in unison with the baleful wind. So is the story of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's I See A Darkness
There is little music in Oldham's tunes, only frighteningly dismal lyrics and vocals brushed with minimal instrumentation. From the start, Oldham invites us into his minor place and then immediately proceeds to take us onto a journey through the emotions of the image I have just painted. Death is a prevalent theme throughout. The finale to "Nomadic Revery" is quite possibly the most eerily haunting piece of music I have ever heard. While still managing to put catchy hooks and memorable lyrics into the most looming songs of dread imaginable, Oldham has created a paradox of sorts. The atmosphere is straight out of a lonesome nightmare, but the soundscape and overall atmosphere is absolutely beautiful. There is no point in discussing the individual songs, as I see it. Each track simply supports the work as a whole, a work of dreary beauty. Title track "I See A Darkness" has the honor of being the most touching of all the album's tracks, but it's nothing out of the ordinary.
The bottom line is this: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's I See A Darkness
is nearly flawless, but its greatest strength is its subtlety. No song dominates the others - rather, they simple build upon one another, setting the mood and painting a picture. Now let Will Oldham - now let Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - guide you through his isolated forest and lead you safely to his minor place.