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Definitive Albums: Palace Music 'Viva Last Blues' (1995)

Bonnie's Blues

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Definitive Albums: Palace Music 'Viva Last Blues' (1995)
Drag City Records

God Lies Within

Back when he was young, long before Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Bonny Billy and Pushkin and Arise Therefore and Palace Music and Palace Songs, Will Oldham was an actor. When he was just 17, Oldham played a fiery teenaged preacher in John Sayles’ 1987 motion-picture Matewan. Intense beyond his years, the young Stable Will was a caustic presence in a tense story steeped in the lore of proto-unionist miners’ protests.

When Oldham later turned to songwriting, there was still something of the preacher in the Kentuckian; his achingly beautiful, cavernously lonely country ballads unafraid of biblical imagery and God’s apparent savagery. God was a recurring presence in Oldham's early albums, which were all issued in variations on the Palace name (Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music, etc).

I Preach for Both

Viva Last Blues, his third such Palace album, is no exception. The album's stark (naked) closing lament, "Old Jerusalem," finishes with Oldham solemnly intoning "let us wallow, let us play, this is our god’s day," the end rumination to a tender ode to intercourse. The songsmith's descriptions of intimacy sound out like gentle, knowing poetry, the passage "then we mingle our limbs/ I hear all calling/ when we swim and we buckle/ and I emote" as evocative as it was on the album's release.

Oldham had authored stark ballads of this quality before, though. What made Viva Last Blues an evolutionary step was that it marked the songsmith's first forays into rich, nearly-orchestral country. The players are hardly the Nashville session hands that would mark his later-period work as Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, but the contributions of brother Ned, Jason Loewenstein of Sebadoh, and Liam Hayes of Plush give the album a regal quality.

Golden-toned songs like "The Brute Choir" and "New Partner" have the feeling of classic country ballads; the former wound up with second-guessed lust, the latter a straight-up lovesong that intentionally evokes Willie Nelson. At the time, Oldham was more punk-rock than Nashville, but Viva Last Blues struck a balance: famously cranky producer Steve Albini managing to capture smooth performances with a raw tone; Oldham's songs sounding Southern in some mythical, Falknerian way. It's an album that quite clearly marks Oldham’s masterwork; at turns urgent and volatile, reluctant and solemn, lovestruck and heartachin’.

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