No album sounds like I See a Darkness.
Will Oldham is not a trickster spirit. A guiding light in American folk, sure, but in his interviews and twenty-first century work, he comes off as an affable troubadour, hanging out with Angel Olsen and waltzing around his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that he was some sort of mischievous old god for the reverence placed on I See a Darkness.
In the five albums before I See a Darkness, Oldham changed monikers three times, going from Palace Brothers, to Palace Music and settling on his own name for one album before finding a new persona to slither into. The rotating names matched a carousel cast, including his brothers, parents and members of Slint. Early albums like There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You held a rickety, punk energy, even as Oldham’s twang rattled across rusty guitars. And by ’99, he was a known quantity. On Viva Last Blues, his third release, he was recording with Steve Albini and was at the forefront of Drag City’s climb into indie legend. But no one was expecting I See a Darkness. In the shadow of this monument, his solid acclaim was eclipsed completely, landing him in the world of myth rather than praise.
No album sounds like I See a Darkness. Not for the instrumentation or even Oldham’s voice, though both are captivating. It’s a mystery of production. As Oldham’s first post-Drag City record, it was he and his cohort who mixed and mastered everything on display. It’s an exceedingly quiet album; even at full blast, it seems to be just massaging the outside of the ears. This Q-Tip quality makes it impossible to listen to passively. Too soft and the sounds will completely fade into the ether. Turn it up and be so entranced that doing anything else becomes a ridiculous thought. Oldham, though a yelper in vocal quality, rarely indulges in hollering here. Only the ending, whooping war chant of “Nomadic Revery (All Around)” and the crushing stomp of “Madeleine-Mary” raise his voice above a tremble. But he pairs his voice with overdubs the few times he yowls, creating the impression that another version of himself is causing the ruckus, and our central narrator is being flung by larger forces, within and without him.
It’s with these half-baked, pseudo-harmonies that Oldham drags Darkness from the desperate to the deranged. Opener “A Minor Place” has Oldham and a twin voice strolling through a cheery tune dedicated to the album of abyss about to follow. The “Place” is not “A tomb where I lay dead” but “Minor in a sound alone/ Yes, a clear commanding tone.” And Oldham does refuse the directly physical. I See a Darkness can be a bodiless experience, floating through the void with Oldham not so much as a guide but a fellow passenger in limbo. Through his minor work in lyrics and music he sketches a view of his “Darkness,” never exact, but not elusive either. More of a well-made outline in which we can place our own fears. It’s never a truly foreboding album; that would imply a shade of foreshadowing or dramatic irony. Instead, it looks at everything too clearly, with an unnerving acceptance in its sober view of death.
These tracks feel dusty, composed on church pianos. A collection of perverted hymns from Manifest Destiny. The timeless, perturbing feeling is further aided by sing-song couplets with childish rhymes gone terribly wrong. “Another Day Full of Dread” lingers on the sociopathic, but holds a “nick-nack paddy-whack” chorus, even as Oldham comments on the positive traits of dread and threatens some unseen bore.
Oldham injects a sense of macabre mirth to Darkness. “Death to Everyone” is bad acid-trip psychedelia even without the title. But in Oldham’s exploration of a death far beyond the ego, he finds happiness. “Death to everyone is gonna come/ And it makes hosing much more fun,” he states before a duo of gremlins give a backing “la la la.” “We’re glad that you’re here with us/ And since we know an end will come/ It makes our living fun,” he asserts with a worrying smile. He might be right, but it damn sure sounds terrifying.
And that runs with the moments of silliness peppered throughout the album as reminders of the general absurdity of life. It is an album made by its smallest moments, like the scattered, accidental-sounding, minor chord closing the chorus of “Today I Was an Evil One” or a later dirty joke in a song that floats around like a lazy ghost.
These nuggets of sound reflect the remarkable restraint that went into every aspect of I See a Darkness. Penultimate track “Black” is as simple as its title. All of three chords and Oldham’s singing, he wavers between fighting that good fight and surrendering to the reaper. He decides to hold death close, fighting his own dread by keeping its specter around him at all times, a more mournful version of his merry nihilism on “Death to Everyone.”
And then there is the title track. To say it lands in the pantheon of indie greatest is to vastly understate its power. Even before it was covered by Johnny Cash, it had already snuck into the great song book of America. “I See a Darkness” is unmatched in its depiction of late night revelry swooning into dead-eyed existentialism. With a loping piano in tow and a shuffling drum beat, Oldham unveils a combative stage of worries and hopes. In less than five minutes he examines the harder, or more positive aspects of dread, fear and death. Not in the sense of motivational posters, but more in line with the adrenaline rush delivered by fear or the relief flowing from grief. And still, there is that uncanny restraint. Any other songwriter would have made the song burst at its seams with an orchestra to match the sublime chord change that bows below Oldham’s choking vow that he’ll “never go to sleep.”
Both the song and album achieved a cult status like Oldham had produced this death document then vanished as quickly as he appeared. Oldham viewed the song as a portrait of an evil man attempting to change his ways, but seemed to encourage multiple readings of the work. When Cash took on “Darkness” it was absolutely a meeting of the Man in Black with “Black.” And Oldham later rearranged it into a rockabilly jaunt, further discombobulating the song’s mythos. It proved that Oldham, better than anyone, knew he was but a conduit for old powers.