#29: Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – ‘I See A Darkness’ (1999)

‘I Can See A Darkness’ deals in friendship and depression.

Even when things are seemingly at their best, when you are filled with love for all the people you know, and you have clear hopes and plans for both the very near and the very far future, depression can still rise like the ‘Lost’ smoke monster and completely engulf you. Often it doesn’t make sense – also like the ‘Lost’ smoke monster – and when it happens a few times without any real world triggers to trace it to, it can make you stop being able to trust positive emotions – or rather you stop trusting the stability of them. Seeing “a darkness” is obviously not to be taken literally, but have you ever actually felt the lighting in a room shift when hit by a sudden thudding feeling of unspecified dread? It’s a very real sensation.

This song opens the first album that prolific songwriter Will Oldham released under the name Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. A slow-burning, five minute plod, it was a stark opening statement after the lo-fi genre-blurring of his previous variously-named projects, and a clear sign that we were to take this new catalogue as a serious new start. The songs were focused, and adopted a more standard approach. “He’s going to sing songs that have verses, choruses, and bridges,” Oldham told the New Yorker of his new alias. “He’s, like, a Brill Building or Nashville songwriter.” Despite the third-person speak, the songs were more personal than ever before.

Close friendships are often the only anchors we can consistently rely upon, but as Oldham details in this song, even when you have the type of open relationship with a friend that allows you to detail your darkest feelings, and even when you know you share similar struggles with this person, you cannot be sure that you are being completely heard. “Many times we’ve been out drinking, and many times we’ve shared our thoughts”, he sings. “But did you ever notice the kind of thoughts I got?” Willpower to beat these dark thoughts is beside the point, too – Oldham knows logically that he has a drive to live and won’t let go of this, but he is also aware he is helpless to enforce this when his depression takes hold. He refers to his “drive” and “it’s opposition” as twin powers he has no agency over, but he still maintains hope. He hopes his friend can “somehow” save him from the darkness.

The second verse is infused with further simple hope – that one day he and his “buddy” will each have peace in their lives. His hope isn’t conditional on anything else – they can be alone, with wives, still friends, or not – as long as they can “light it up forever, and never go to sleep.” The fact he is looking into the future at all is a sign that perhaps the darkness will one day be beaten, but as of now, it still has a stronghold on him. Still, he does have hope…

@200sadsongs | @keirenjolly | @nathanjolly

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