Palace – the early years

Five works by Will Oldham's first persona, reissued. No extras, some weirdness...

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Five works by Will Oldham’s first persona, reissued. No extras, some weirdness…

Long before anyone called it that, Will Oldham was making his musical home among the farm animals, pitchforks and clapboard churches of the old, weird, America. Nor was he on any kind of short vacation to this hard country. Over the course of four full-length studio albums made before he abandoned the “Palace” persona, Oldham scratched out his living from the earth, so to speak, a place where the songs were shaped by the fundamentals: warmth, food, drink, occasional violence, and thoughts of God. In this landscape, lust and horses also, more than once, reared their heads.

So powerfully did Palace records do their work in the hilariously unglobalized world of indie rock circa 1993, the scant reliable information there was about the person who made them created a vacuum that instantly filled with rumour and surmise, something Oldham’s own mild eccentricity only encouraged. I met him in 1995, when this eccentricity seemed limited to his not particularly rating Teenage Fanclub, but if he had turned up to the interview covered in manure, carrying a Bible one wouldn’t at that time have been enormously surprised.

The strength of this impression was the doing, primarily, of the debut Palace Brothers album There Is No-One What Will Take Care Of You (1993), backward in its grammar and in its setting, but supremely prescient in devising a route out of post-hardcore guitar music (every bit as ingenious, in fact, as that made by the “post-rock” band Slint, his contemporaries from Louisville, Kentucky, for whose Spiderland LP Oldham took the cover photo, and most of whose members appear on his first album).

The album presents music utterly stripped back – “I Was Drunk At The Pulpit” comprises a single chord; the album, produced to be thus, feels cold and isolated – but not in such a way we’d now call “folk”. Oldham, as his subsequent oddball catalogue proved, is no purist. But perhaps if there was a point being made here, it’s that the bare essentials are what will survive of music, and of us.

1994’s Days In The Wake by comparison feels less of an auteur-directed work, and more a fly-on-the-wall documentary piece – its songs come with chair creaks, and fingers squeaking on the fretboard. This intimacy was at the expense of none of Oldham’s drama, however, or his wit. If anything, this was a singer-songwriter album, but one conducted on a knife edge, its concise half hour containing what was starting to become recognisable as Oldham’s unique beat: mock heroic, grand delusions, touching domestic details, near madness, horses. The thunderstorm that could be heard on “No More Workhorse Blues” reminded you that this was (as we said at the time) a “lo-fi” recording, but it also seemed a Shakespearean indication of the tempest within.

Such rough edges prevented some from enjoying Palace music (a point which Oldham addressed himself a decade later, re-recording his “greatest hits” in a no less devisive “Nashville” style for a 2004 album …Plays Greatest Palace Music), but perfection was the casualty of creativity in music that was evolving constantly. It could be exquisite (hear the vocal harmonies on “Agnes, Queen Of Sorrow” on the 1995 mini album Hope), and it could be surprising (the 1997 collection Lost Blues And Other Lost Songs collects singles, B-sides, waifs and strays and experiments, including a version of “Riding” that pitches Oldham in a battle with deafening electric guitars). It’s hard to imagine, however, that this music could have done a better job of uniting true believers and floating voters than it did with the final album reissued here.

1995’s magnificent Viva Last Blues is simply recommended to all. Its medium for the most part a warm and even Stonesy folk-rock, it finds Oldham writing songs that still sound ad hoc but are also – a new thing completely – genuinely groovy. It’s an album that’s rocking (“Cat’s Blues”; “More Brother Rides”; “Work Hard/Play Hard”), amusing (“The Mountain Low” begins with the line: “If I could fuck a mountain…”), and canonically moving (“New Partner”, a song that evokes the Old West, but is in truth more about partnership of a domestic kind) but still retains among the clavinets and wah-wah guitar, some essential Oldham qualities: mystery, profanity, a sense of landscape, and, yes, horses.

In the enjoyable, Oldham-starring 2006 film Old Joy, (just one of the divergent paths his career has taken post-Palace), Oldham’s character Kurt and his buddy Mark reminisce about their 1990s youth, spent in independent record shops in the Portland area, one lately closed. That was Palace’s youth, too, and in these albums, one is privileged to join Oldham’s long-running saga at the start of his journey, the road ahead filled with promise, but still alive with strangeness and uncertainty.
John Robinson


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