Every now and then we get a chance to show our abilities”, declares Lonnie Holley, on the title track of Oh Me Oh My. The Birmingham, Alabama native has consistently demonstrated his abilities across 45 years as a self-taught visual artist – among his early creations were memorials made from waste sandstone blocks for a niece and nephew who died in a fire, because the family could not afford gravestones – and he’s also been making music for much of that time. But he didn’t have the opportunity to release his debut album until 2012, when he was 62. Now, it seems, his time has truly come.
That lyric, however, refers not to his own singular creativity but to a broader, crucial human ability: understanding. Rather than a recurring theme, it’s more a state of awareness fused hard to Holley’s process, involving personal and ancestral histories, memory and the idea of cosmic connectedness. All this nourishes him still, and it floods every cut on Oh Me Oh My.
Drawn from a place he’s described as “deep inside my eternal self”, his recordings are carried by a throaty and intensely soulful, blues-soaked voice with a tremulous quality and set to celestial keyboard ripples. They generally favour repetition, are unrestrained by compositional convention and suggest a union of Arthur Russell, Laraaji and a kind of cosmic RL Burnside. Holley has previously collaborated with Cole Alexander of Black Lips, Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox, Richard Swift and Spacebomb supremo Matthew E White, while his politicised 2018 ‘breakthrough’ album MITH was written largely with the exploratory trombone-and-drums duo Nelson Patton. Holley’s polymorphous creativity pushes him forever forward.
His latest album triumphs on levels beyond its inimitable Holley-ness. On the one hand, it reads like another act of spontaneous divination, revisiting past traumas with pained understanding, yet also hopeful and celebrating the wonder of life. But it’s also his most substantial and accessible album yet. There’s no denying that guests of the calibre of Michael Stipe, Bon Iver and Sharon Van Etten will further increase Holley’s visibility, though their features are far from flashy star turns.
More crucially, his meditations, incantations and stream-of-consciousness musings have been given form and focus, where previously they wandered. Using a much wider range of instrumentation and far more detailed processing than is usual on Holley’s records, producer Jacknife Lee has helped shape a distinctive sound that nods to no-wave jazz, cosmic soul, jittery funk and moody electronica, while maintaining the songs’ impressionistic power. Lee, who co-wrote most of the tracks and recorded them in his Topanga Canyon studio, does a lot of the heavy lifting (on piano, keys, synths, bass, guitar, and percussion) while other players add horns, strings, guitar and upright bass. At their heart is Holley, on vocals and Mellotron.
All of which indicates that the dubious ‘outsider artist’ tag no longer fits – if ever it did. His first live show was at the Whitney Museum and some of his pieces are in the Smithsonian. Like his assemblages made from salvaged materials and trash, his music is untutored and has a rawness to it, but it’s in no way unknowing or without direction. Rather, Oh Me Oh My is strongly driven by what Holley calls “planetorial” concerns, and his big-picture awareness is as vital as the personal memories he’s sifting through. They pack the kind of emotional punch you might expect from a black male born in 1950 in the Deep South, the seventh of 27 kids, who was at some point in his childhood hit and dragged by a car, pronounced brain-dead and spent months in a coma, and who after recovering was sent to the notoriously abusive Alabama Industrial School For Negro Children.
All these experiences and more feed into Oh Me Oh My, either directly or indirectly, but it’s nothing like a misery memoir. “Mount Meigs”, named after the site of the aforementioned school, is the album’s dark and unsettling centrepiece: shards of razored improv guitar puncture a drone soundbed, out of which rises an urgently pummelling beat pattern, before mournful horns have their say toward the close. It’s just the kind of cacophony needed to support Holley’s painful recollection – “They let me go from Mount Meigs, Alabama in 1964 / But with some cuts and bruises that I would never forget” – although it stands apart in the set.
“Testing” opens the album, a woozy upright piano melody carrying Holley’s touching vibrato, equal parts Jimmy Scott and late Bobby Womack. “We are all being tested/Here we are, testing our abilities”, he declares, his mind on our shared purpose. The similarly reflective “I Am A Part Of The Wonder” is a terrific, beats-driven astral-jazz collaboration with Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother), who also joins Holley on “Earth Will Be There”. It carries a message of eternal trust, pinging across the vastness of outer space via satellite and down through the aeons, before dipping into an incantatory groove that recalls Ligeti, Sun Ra and Soulsavers.
Very different is the keening “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears”, on which Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon lends his sweet, folksy harmonising and guitar skills to Lee’s pillow-soft pump organ and synth. Meanwhile, on “None Of Us Have But A Little While”, Sharon Van Etten’s understated part adds to the Van Morrison-ish rapture as Holley reminds us that “the definition of gone is when we look around for our friends and they are not here any longer with us”.
Malian singer Rokia Koné is his perfect foil on the soulful, life-affirmingly earthy “If We Get Lost They Will Find Us”, singing in her native Bambara. And on the title track, Michael Stipe steps up to the mic, his multi-tracked vocal gently rising and falling in the background as he repeats the phrase, a counter to Holley’s familiar recitations and thick, guttural wails. Elsewhere, there are echoes of Tom Waits (on the bluesy, low-slung and heavily percussive “Better Get That Crop In Soon”), William Basinski (“I Can’t Hush”) and, on closing track “Future Children”, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”. There, in a heavily treated robo-vocal and over a symphony of frantically blinking pulses, Holley muses on communication through generations and stresses the importance of preserving information to help generations to come: “No signal, the signal lost / Power failure / No power”. As he explains to Uncut, “The future children of this planet that I’m singing to, it’s for them to pick up on my music as a highway to travel to truly get to freedom, freedom of all of these terrible mistakes that have been made by our planet.”
It’s a philanthropic gesture on a grand scale, if arguably somewhat naive – but then, naivete is in the eye of the beholder. Like so much of Holley’s music, although Oh Me Oh My is profoundly personal, it’s also given over to a kind of spiritual service. His abilities here are never in doubt.