“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.
The popularity and longevity of “I See A Darkness” may lie in its ambiguity. Who exactly are these people? Who is speaking, and to whom is he speaking? The song is a one-act play, waiting to be restaged with cowboys along a wagon trail, or Confederate soldiers deserting their ranks, or itinerant workers splitting rails. They could be a pair of touring musicians, even a musician and his listener. Oldham himself provided a vague hint during an interview with the music blog of the Royal College of Psychiatrists: “Recently I found the three or four little yellow post-it notes onto which the lyrics for ‘I See A Darkness’ were originally written. I can remember where I was sitting as the song came out. It was a stab at identifying specifically one audience member and singing to him, rather than the usual open concept of audience.”
Perhaps even more mysterious is the very idea of darkness, which seems to shift constantly during the song. Obviously there is the idea of death itself, the obvious and inevitable darkness, a reminder that Oldham and his companion must “stop our whoring and pull the smiles inside.” There is also the chance that it may be less personal than public: a darkness shared among Americans, some flaw in the national character that reveals itself in lynchings or mass shootings or simply in the indifference we show to one another everyday.
The song hints further that it may be a moral darkness, the “opposition” to the great love he feels: a dire rage, a darkness in the brain that will erupt in violence. As Oldham told Pitchfork in 2001, “There was a girl once in high school that said there were two ways of painting yourself, or seeing yourself: one was as an essentially good person who tries to do evil in the world, or as an essentially evil person who tries to do good in the world. And she asked which one I thought. And I think I thought the latter — an essentially evil person who tries to do good in the world.”
Perhaps for that very reason, “I See A Darkness” can take on different weight and shape in different hands. In 2006, the UK singer-songwriter Steve Adey slowed the song to an absolute crawl, and he sounds like a lone congregant singing in an empty church. Other versions are less inventive: Smokewagon’s 2002 cover is cornpone gothic, and this year’s version by Northern Lites is saccharine synth-pop. There’s a weird Eurodisco cover by an act called Acid Pauli that’s not as bad as that sounds, and the Skydiggers covered it on a holiday album between “Good King Wenceslas” and “Christmas Eve Night.”
Even Oldham himself has covered it. Live versions of “I See A Darkness” appear on 2005’s Summer In The Southeast and 2008’s Is It The Sea?, featuring radically different arrangements. And in 2012, he revved it up a bit on Now Here’s My Plan, goosing his long-standing alter-ego by speeding up the tempo and adding an insistent drumbeat. It’s an almost deliberate mishandling, a means of breaking the song out of its solemnity and trying to make it mean something new. Yet, the simple act of adding a band balances the gravity with celebration, as though seeing a darkness proved the existence of a light.
But the most popular and certainly the most definitive cover of the song — if not the most definitive version — is the one Johnny Cash recorded for 2002’s American Recordings III: Solitary Man. Perhaps because Cash is singing the song so close to the end of his life, or perhaps because he places it alongside other pop American standards by Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, and Nick Cave, he gives “I See A Darkness” a grave reading, full of deep worry and startling tenderness. Cash might be singing to all the country acts he counted as contemporaries, making the song an outlaw’s toast to Waylon and Willie, Kris and Hag, Rick Rubin and even Oldham himself.
Fittingly, Oldham sings back-up on that version. As he told Pitchfork in 2001, “It was so unreal a feeling that I didn’t really know what it like [sic]. It was very much just trying to stay on the ball the whole time. Just trying to keep my brain together, which took a lot of effort. Because it was a marriage of things I couldn’t … in some ways it felt too good to be true, really. That’s what it felt like. I feel very strongly about [his version]. I get a lot out of listening to it, to that version of it.”