Seen it all
In the movie Old Joy, Will Oldham plays an aging stoner who’s so comfortable in his rootlessness that he can’t understand why everyone else isn’t as content as he is to drift aimlessly through life. He convinces a friend to leave his extremely pregnant wife at home for the weekend and to go camping, and then he gets the both of them extremely lost in the woods, which suits him just fine since being lost in the woods is pretty much his natural state. I’ve never met the real-life Oldham, but I’ve known plenty of guys like his Old Joy character, and I’ve always imagined the real Oldham to be basically just like them. He strikes me as someone who gets so obsessively devoted to one idea that he forgets everything he was doing before he had it, and when he gets done with that he moves onto the next idea. I have this idea that he’s been jumping from epiphany to epiphany for so long that flux has basically become his status quo. And even though he’s mostly worked in subdued, rustic genres, he’s also taken evident pleasure in confounding the hell out his his built-in audience. That tendency to wander has led to some insufferable music. The last time Oldham recorded an album of covers, for instance, he teamed up with Tortoise and mangled the hell out of a few totally great songs, leaching all the anthemic joy out of “Thunder Road” and turning Lungfish’s “Love is Love” into gloopy half-jazz fuzz. But even when Oldham’s indulging his worst ideas, he sounds totally committed to them, and he never seems to be forcing himself out of his element. Last year, Oldham released The Letting Go, a gorgeous little pastoral folk album full of wispy tremolo guitars and pillowy female backup vocals and sighing strings. When Oldham hits on a really good sound, I’m always afraid that he’ll abandon it just as quickly and move onto something less interesting. So I’m happy to hear that Ask Forgiveness, the new mini-album of mostly covers that Oldham just released, ambles even further down the same aesthetic pathways that he tried out on The Letting Go. On Ask Forgiveness, Oldham sounds comfortable and settled-in, and that’s fitting for a record that’s actually about feeling comfortable and settled-in.
The choices of source-material on Ask Forgiveness seem guaranteed to get message-boards working; Oldham must know that people will think it’s weird that he’s covering Bjork and Danzig and R. Kelly. But none of those choices are all that forced or bizarre; Oldham’s fandom of all those artists has long been established. He’s worked with Bjork before, he spent a few days on the road with Samhain as a kid and later wrote about it, and his admiration for Kells was enough that he turned up for a deeply inexplicable cameo during a flashback segment of chapter 15 of “Trapped in the Closet” earlier this year, playing a cop. (Even if none of Kelly’s characters shared that one scene with Oldham, Kelly directed the whole “Trapped” saga, so presumably Kelly and Oldham had to have at least one conversation. I would’ve loved to be a fly on the wall for that one.) The ironic indie-rock cover is an unfortunate tradition as old as indie-rock itself, and on some level Oldham’s been guilty of indulging it in the past; he did, after all, sing a Mariah Carey song on the putrid-by-design Guilt By Association compilation earlier this year. (Interestingly, Oldham’s version of “Can’t Take That Away,” with its twerked-up drum-machines was a lot more synthetic than Carey’s string-heavy original.) But Oldham sings “Am I Demon” and “The World’s Greatest” with the same hushed reverence as he gives his Phil Ochs and Mekons covers. In fact, the only track Oldham seems to take lightly at all is the one original, “I’m Loving the Street,” an easy and casual little song about bees. Every song is fragile and pretty, with lots of delicately interweaving acoustic guitars and no drums whatsoever. There’s a quiet, trancelike quality to the arrangements here; the record reminded me of the Philly doom-folk collective Espers even before I found out that a couple of Espers played on it. If I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, I’d have no idea that they weren’t all Oldham originals; he delivers all the lyrics in the same hushed, muttery sing-speak, and even the stuff about seasoned schemes of slimy curs on “Am I Demon” sounds like the sort of thing Oldham might write. I love that he sounds more like himself when he’s singing other people’s songs than when he’s singing his own.
Slowly, it emerges that all the songs on Ask Forgiveness share the same basic lyrical theme: they’re all about accepting your place in the world after tearing yourself to pieces wondering if it’s the right place for you. Frank Sinatra’s “Cycles,” for example, is a song about looking back on life and realizing that every apocalyptic event you’ve been through was really pretty petty: “There isn’t much that I have learned in all my foolish years / Except that life keeps running in cycles: first there’s laughter, then those tears.” And the Mekons’ “The Way I Am” is about wishing you were somewhere else in life but then gradually accepting the way your life is. On “The World’s Greatest,” he sings about standing up tall and being proud. And even if “Am I Demon” doesn’t come to any neat conclusions, at least it asks itself tough questions: “Am I demon? Am I human? Am I just like you?” It occurs to me that not a whole lot of songs address the resignation and acceptance that only come after intensive periods of self-doubt. Resignation and acceptance aren’t particularly romantic subjects, and they don’t lend themselves to the sort of intense, heightened emotion that drives most pop music. But when Oldham lines all these songs up next to each other and gives them all the same whispery, intimate, matter-of-fact delivery, those feelings develop a sort of dignity that just kills me. He doesn’t sound like he’s lost in the woods anymore.