Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy: “I See A Darkness”

The title track off Will Oldham’s first album under his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy alias has become a weird sort of American standard.

photo by Todd Brashear photo by Todd Brashear

“I See A Darkness,” the title track off Will Oldham’s first album under his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy alias, has become a weird sort of American standard. It’s certainly his most popular tune, arguably his best, and one that is covered by a range of artists on a fairly regular basis even fifteen years after its release. With its simple structure — just two verses and two choruses — and its sackcloth ambience, it’s a deeply haunting tune, not easy to figure out and impossible to shake off. Oldham withholds as much as he discloses, and in doing so has crafted a song that somehow accrues more mystery with each listen.

On its surface, the song is as unadorned as Shaker furniture. The verses are quiet and slow, less sung than spoken in a halting clip, as though Oldham’s narrator is steeling himself to get these words out of his mouth. He addresses a silent, unseen companion — “my best unbeaten brother.” He toasts the good times they’ve shared — the drinking and whoring, the carousing — with minimal regret, and he declares a deep “love for everyone I know.” And yet, doubts persists. A nagging something, all the more frightening for being unnamable, and the most specific he can get is to confess, “I see a darkness.” The delicate beauty of that melody, however, belies the bleakness of the thought, turning the song into a hymn to his last tatter of hope. Then the song ends, somewhat abruptly and unceremoniously.

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