The third single from Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Singer’s Grave A Sea of Tongues, out on Drag City and available on iTunes this week, is a deceptive study in mirrors and reverse images, of expectations from performers, and of dialogues both spoken and unspoken. It also happens to be one of the most subtly spoken commentaries on the state of the A/B-sided single, in form concrete, since Bedhead’s “Lepidoptera”/”Leper” 10-inch EP hit stores some 17 years ago.
You see, there’s two songs and two definitive sides on Will Oldham’s new record and, like Singer’s Grave was, in a way, a “second look” at Wolfroy, we are led to believe, if through the title and lyrical content alone that “Mindlessness” and “Blindlessness” are related. They very well might be. What unites them most beautifully, however, is what distinguishes one from the other.
“Mindlessness” starts with a stilted drum roll, an electric guitar and accompanying rhythm section quickly running through Eastern scales and then Oldham, over strummed acoustics, invoking “What was I saying / where do I stand?” The chorus, which follows some existential and religious rumination, includes a backing gospel choir (“Nobody an–SWERS!”), before the band returns to the Eastern scales. After the next gospel-choir-assisted chorus, there’s a brief solo with what sounds like ukulele or mandolin and, before the end, one is reminded of Oldham’s ever-present grappling over matters of the Lord. It’s not an ornate song but it’s surely colorful and, even if there’s no Message with a capital M, Oldham is surely tackling Issues with a capital I. It’s catchy. It’s got hooks and big choruses. Of course it’s the A side.
Enter the B-side, “Blindlessness.” Now, this is the Palace son I’ve usually found the most intriguing: more spiritual than dogmatically religious, more pained than plaintive, more spare than songful. It is the Oldham of Master and Everyone, the young Prince Will of “You Will Miss Me When I Burn.” On “Blindlessness,” almost everything is stripped naked but the voice. There are a few, so few, notes on acoustic guitar, the occasional scraping at a bass neck but, above it all, there’s the utter, bone-chilling beauty of Oldham’s voice, often double-tracked in harmony, leading the way right to your stomach. It is the north pole to “Mindlessness”’s warm equatorial tones, spellbinding stuff that should’nt be relegated to an “in-between” release. If you’re looking for a video to cement the eerie sparseness of it all, look no further than this YouTube video: BRILLIANT STUFF. (And official from Drag City!)
But the inherent commentary is in how the A and B sides reflect flip sides of the same performer, literally different sides and different faces. I’m sure you could write a doctoral thesis analyzing how “My consciousness is drifting and it’s got nowhere to go” (“Mindlessness”) is somehow a commentary or portmanteau on “Luck is a storm that flails in the tropics where I have never been” (“Blindlessness”) but that’s for someone looking for an advanced degree to chew. Suffice it to say, just as Bedhead’s moth was talking to the man and the A and B sides were somewhat literally inverted on that 10-inch EP in 1998, Oldham is talking to the listener about the two performers they expect him to be on his new 7-inch. And it is good.