I came across Palace Brothers early on, in my life and theirs, in October 1993 when I was nineteen and ‘Ohio River Boat Song’ and There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You were Will Oldham’s calling cards. Soon, Oldham’s calling cards would be Palace Music’s ‘New Partner’, from Viva Last Blues, which Glen Hansard covered, and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s ‘I See A Darkness’, which Johnny Cash covered on American III: Solitary Man, the same album where Cash recorded Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat’ and U2’s ‘One’.
Of course Will Oldham wouldn’t have been too over-awed by this. He was not into awe. A vivid memory of seeing Will Oldham live is when he was lying asleep on the stage he was sharing with Nick Cave at Liss Ard in West Cork. It was 1999 and Cave’s current release was still the reveredThe Boatman’s Call. Cave said he didn’t believe in an interventionist God but then many thought on foot of ‘Into My Arms’ and ‘(Are You) The One That I’ve Been Waiting For’ that Cave was himself a god. Sleeping Will seemed not to think so. In fairness, by 1999 Oldham had released ‘I See A Darkness’, the song that Johnny Cash would cover, so he and Nick Cave were songwriting peers. Nick didn’t mind. He’d been in The Birthday Party. He’d been there.
In October 1993 there was a Melody Maker review of There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You and I was riveted to Melody Maker at the time. I don’t remember the review well but I remember finding the language of the album title attractive and mysterious. There is no-one“what” will take care of you. Not “who”. So I popped in to a Palace show that happened to be on that night, 24/10/93, in the Baggot Inn. It was a Sunday. Happy days living in the suburbs of Dublin, a bus and short walk from all kinds of spontaneous excitement.
This turned into one of the most transformative musical moments of my life. There are just a few moments when you have years of retrospect to draw on that seem like important branches in your musical tree. Like side one of American Music Club’s Everclear and Pixies’ Doolittle, side two of R.E.M.’s Green and AMC’s California, then much later IBM 1401 by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Where you realise: oh this can be done. In this case it was the scope of what a songwriter can sing about, how broken a voice can be, and how much you do or don’t have to trust the veracity of the voice you are listening to. Truth comes in different guises.
In Autumn 1993, arriving at the Baggot, I had never seen a picture of Will and his appearance shocked me. He stood on stage so thin and frail, almost invisible if he turned to the side. He was wearing jeans that had a belt and still slipped down his legs. His voice was not like one I had heard. It was hoarse and rickety and vulnerable with a tone both harsh and help-seeking. I think a lot of people in The Baggot were encountering Will for the first time. I remember surprise and sympathy—an “Awwwww!”—that rippled across the room when he sang, in ‘I Had A Good Mother And Father’, “I just thank God he’s able / For to give me so many good friends”.
The band around him was surging like The Bad Seeds. When he sang ‘Ohio River Boat Song’, his wavering vocal was at the centre but the surrounding sine wave of sound carried you up and down as a roaring river would. I didn’t at the time recognise David Pajo, the lead guitar player, who was directing that swelling sound, and who was in Slint, the cover photo of whose Spiderland it turned out Will Oldham had taken. I would get to know him when I met Will and David the following day at a free lunchtime gig in the UCD bar. I bought them pints. In 1993 I was in medical school, based on Earlsfort Terrace rather than Belfield where the bar is, but I was choosing gigs over lectures as I always would.
‘I Am A Cinematographer’ is the song that ends Palace Brothers’ second album Days In The Wake. This came out, then called Palace Brothers, in August 1994, less than a year after There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You and in the same year as a cluster of summer EPs containing the songs ‘Gulf Shores’ ,’Trudy Dies’, ‘Stable Will’, and ‘Mountain’. Within another year, he would release Viva Last Blues. Oldham was prodigious.
‘I Am A Cinematographer’ sets out Oldham’s stall as a writer of huge breadth and depth painting on a canvas as wide as the oxbowing Ohio River that flows through his home town of Louisville. Oldham documents his departure from Louisville in this song but he refuses to allow the songs to be only about himself in real life. He refuses to be like Morrissey who was only interested in songs that were about himself (“Hang the DJ / Because the music that they constantly play / It says nothing to me about my life”).
Oldham demonstrated early in his Palace career that he was interested in the stories of others more than in his own. He wrote unafraid fiction. The songs were about whatever was in front of his eyes or in the recesses of his mind, acted by protagonists like in plays. This was big news for me in 1994 because I assumed singers were telling their own stories and wanting us to like them. But that is limiting and you need to have people taking chances and sounding like dangerous or uncouth people in their songs. I didn’t know this about Oldham on There Is No-One and it just dawned on me over time.
Oldham’s songs have always been narrated by himself and by reliable and unreliable narrators like Gogol stories. As have many but not all Smog songs. I don’t think there is an Oldham equivalent of Smog’s tender 1999 diary entry ‘Teenage Spaceship’, for instance. ‘Mountain’, released in summer 1994, just before Days in the Wake, has its lead character fuck a mountain (“And I’d do it with a woman in the valley”).
On Viva Last Blues‘ brave but barbaric ‘Tonight’s Decision (And Hereafter)’, the narrator says “I have heard death cry, I have heard him falter / I have heard him lie and escape unscathed / When he comes for me I will fuck him, oh / I will waste him in my own way”. 1996’s ‘Disorder’ has a protagonist say about “Lisa or Laura / (I know not her real name)”, that he sees in her “a reason to live / Which was past just a symbol of woman and luck / That I will never be lacking for something to fuck”. I remember reviewing this and expressing astonishment at the use of the word something. These characters are not Will Oldham being kind. They are whomever the cinematographer from Days In The Wake points the camera at. So there is this enormous liberation in this very early declaration of how Palace intends to proceed.
Oldham opens the concluding song on Days In The Wake with “I am a cinematographer”, and continues that he “walked away from New York City / And I walked away from everything that’s good”. He walked away from California too. He left these places where things might be comfortable because he wanted to see what he could find out there, like a 50s beat poet refusing to yawn or say a commonplace thing, and to convey this to people who would listen to his stories of rage and failure as well as tender love. There is third-person pain and copious sin here as there is in other oeuvres so Oldham creates a new body of work while attending to old ones. In 1988 Nick Cave died deservedly in a mercy seat. In 1968 Johnny Cash shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. As Palace and beyond, Will Oldham’s words witness and recount all sorts of brutal inhuman inexcusable things. Yet on Days In The Wake he also sings, pleadingly, gingerly, in a persuasive first person: “I send my love to you / I send my hands to you / I send my clothes to you / I send my nose to you / I send my trees to you / I send my pleas to you / Won’t you send some back to me?” Cinematographers contain multitudes.