The impact of this record is dimmed a lot by time and by familiarity with Will Oldham’s career. Apparently this was initially released without credits and the sense of mystery that and the music contained herein created probably has a lot to do with this record’s reputation and the launching of Oldham’s career (as Palace etc. and in general).
Of course, for those who dislike Oldham, the critique is that this is all put-on. And because the marketing stunt was a success, there is a real temptation to decide that this is the true proof that Oldham is a fraud; that he has carefully calculated everything about him – his lyrics, his singing, the arrangements, his look, etc – in order to appeal to a certain type of critic and fan who eat up this (false) authenticity.
I would care about that if I didn’t think Oldham was one of his generation’s great songwriters. Whatever his motivations, I know that Oldham’s songs do an excellent job of balancing the ancient and the modern – connecting with ancient themes from songs as far back as humans sang but also having enough acknowledgements of modernity to not actually be mistaken for old timey songs if you listen to the lyrics. The other thing Oldham does so well is to use words economically; much like a sparer version of Neil Young, he is able to paint pictures without filling in all the details.
But this is not Oldham’s best set of songs by any means. It’s clear that, even though he’s perfected his aesthetic already – whatever you may think of it – he hasn’t quite mastered his songcraft like he would later in his career.
Still, this is the beginning of the career of one of the great songwriters of his era; that’s hard to ignore.
All songs written by Will Oldham, except where noted.
- “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Playthings” – 2:06
- “Long Before” – 6:12
- “I Tried to Stay Healthy for You” – 3:30
- “The Cellar Song” – 3:51
- “(I Was Drunk at The) Pulpit” – 3:51
- “There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You” – 2:55
- “O Lord Are You in Need?” – 2:58
- “Merida” – 3:38
- “King Me” – 3:49
- “I Had a Good Mother and Father” (Washington Phillips) – 2:54
- “Riding” – 4:23
- “O Paul” – 2:49
- Grant Barger – bass, organ, acoustic guitar, background singing
- Todd Brashear – harmonies, drums, electric guitar, bass, lap steel guitar, shakers
- Paul Greenlaw – banjo, additional singing
- Brian McMahan – electric guitar, drums, bass
- Britt Walford – drums, electric guitar, bass
- Will Oldham – vocals, guitar, songwriting