Will Oldham has been scratching his name (or one of several others including Palace Brothers, Palace Music and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) into the tree trunks of indie, folk and country for over two decades. Rooting his often dark, sometimes funny, always honest, stories of death, dysfunction and debauchery in some timeless, Southern locale, his resolute detachment from industry fashion has given him a sort of transcendence. With that’s come the freedom to float between genres – whether singing backing vocals on Johnny Cash’s cover of his own Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy classic ‘I See A Darkness’ or a wry-as-a-bone appearance on the remix of Hot Chip’s ‘I Feel Better’.
So it’s not surprising that the songwriter found a kindred spirit in John Peel, for whom he recorded several sessions, three of which provide the content for Pond Scum. Dave Heumann guests on the first four tracks but otherwise this is just Oldham and guitar, producing even sparser and more intimate versions of songs that were already pretty sparse and intimate.
Opener ‘(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit’ sets the tone, wrung out over six-minutes, notably slower than the Palace Brothers’ original, twin finger-picked guitars emphasising its woozy, growing defiance. ‘Death To Everyone’ is second up, Oldham mournfully laughing at the prospect of the inevitable end which “makes everything so much fun”.
Darkness, as you’d expect, pervades yet it’s not unremitting. The previously unreleased ‘Beezle’ announces “destruction of hate begins today” while Oldham gently exclaims on ‘Jolly One (2-15)’: “when you ask me to sing/feels like my heart bursts with pride” as he confesses his identity in the pleasure his audience (or lover?) finds in his craft. However, ultimately, like the ancient Hebrew author of Ecclesiastes, he finds this has “no purpose”. Oldham’s bleak image of himself trapped performing in the corner of a room prevails but is immediately counter-pointed by a straight, sweet version of the traditional tune ‘When Thy Song Flows Through Me’. Genius.
Faith also features on Oldham’s unnerving cover of Prince’s ‘The Cross’ in which the singer sounds like a scared schoolboy, frantically glancing over his shoulder at some approaching horror. Coming near the end of the album, it’s two minutes that will lodge in your mind for weeks.