Like every other Johnny Cash cover, his version of “I See a Darkness” does not come close to touching the original (and yes, I have heard “Hurt,” thank you). Firstly, despite having Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy featured on his version, he foregoes the wonderful physical and emotional counterpoint in the song’s opening couplets (“Well, you were my friend / That’s what you told me … / And can you see / What’s inside of me …”) – I’ve personally pencilled in the ellipses but you can practically hear them each time real name Will Oldham’s falsetto snaps. Further, Johnny Cash delegates Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to vague harmonies behind him – but something special in the original track is the fact that there’s a noticeable lag time between the main vocals and the backing vocals. I get the feeling here that someone played the original copy of the song while feeling extremely down one day, and just whispered alongside it because they were too emotionally exhausted to actually sing the vocals “properly.” Lastly, Johnny Cash ditches Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s tendencies to play with the English language like a modern day Shakespeare – a lot of the time, it doesn’t work, but here, it works wonderfully, “There’s a hope that somehow you you / Can save me from the darkness.”
The first thing you need to know about I See a Darkness is that the title track is far aways the best thing on here. I’m being too sweeping, because there are generous helpings of good moments: “A Minor Place” and “Another Day Full of Dread” both have good choruses (the former also has a cool ending – Is that a synth made to sound like an organ? A high-pitched organ meant to sound like a synth? – but I’m always bothered that the latter recycles the aforementioned lagging backing vocals and is placed right after “I See a Darkness”); the second half of “Nomadic Revery (All Around)” (that unfortunately doesn’t justify the first half’s existence); “Madeleine-Mary” is a wonderful burst of energy in an album that’s mostly concerned with songs with both slow-tempo and sparse-instrumentals – the drums actually smack instead of shuffle, the guitar squiggles and crunches without ever pausing. Oh, and “Raining in Darling” – the second best track here – manages to squeeze in a very noticeable climax (“With such… with such… with such…), his best vocal performance (“It don’t rainanymore! / I go outdoors!”) and an incredibly simple and effective lyrics (the hopeful “I know you love me … I know you do,” which, from the whispered delivery of the last line, you can tell is not so much “I know” as it is “I hope”) – all in a span of 2 minutes! The best example of “I’m in Love with a Girl” since “I’m in Love with a Girl.”
Anyway, I would feel silly picking on a Pitchfork review that they purposely left off its site, but when you give a record like this a very rare 10.0, it’s hard not to. “I’m firmly convinced that Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s new record, I See a Darkness is not music. It doesn’t register in the familiar ways of a pop record […] You can’t dance to it, and… it makes you feel small. So basically, every singer/songwriter album ever, then? Furthermore, “Best of all, Oldham is perhaps the greatest of human singers, in that he sounds like a real person. There’s no studio gimmickry to hide the quiver in his mostly bang-on tone.” Again: so basically, every singer/songwriter album ever, then? But the problem is that, while Will Oldham might sound like a real person (listen to the way he squeezes “This isn’t all I see” at the end of the second verse of the title track – like a hope that it really isn’t), he rarely speaks like one.
As I mentioned, sometimes his style works, like the entire chorus of “Another Day Full of Dread” (that should be mentioned, sounds nothing like its title, but it is fun to sing along), “I say ‘Nip! Nap! It’s all a trap! / Bo! Bis! And so was this! / Whoa! Whoa! To Haiti go / And watch it all come down / Ding! Dong! A silly song,” etc. But most times, it sounds so far removed from society in 1999 (which means it’s even more dated today), that stuff like “E’er have stole me” or “Ye and me” (both from “Knockturne”) end up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. And he squeezes some random sexual images in as well, cooked up from the recesses of a high schooler’s notebook and then dealt out with Oldham’s vocabulary, “”Death to everyone / Is gonna come / And it makes hosing / Much more fun” (“Hosing?” Seriously? If you’re going to use slang like “gonna,” you might as well just come out and say “fucking”) and “Someone mawed and put my cock in” (actually scratch what I just said; this one isn’t much better at all). Furthermore, his “Tell me what else can we do die do” from “Death to Everyone” (which features some cool organ (?) work in the chorus) is so obvious, it hurts. I get it. The answer to “What else can we do” is “Die.” Jesus.
I have two last things to say about the title track’s chorus. The sentiment in “Did you know how much I love you / Is a hope that somehow you you / Can save me from this darkness” is an especially moving one with the growing depression epidemic of the population – when you feel like the only reason you’ve stuck around is because of a close friend or significant other (although, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy purposefully scratches any possible romance out of the track in its second verse, “Well I hope that someday, buddy,” “Alone, or with ourwives,” etc., but the point is still valid). Finally, unlike a lot of other depressing singer/songwriters, the repeated “I see a darkness” is so obviously about depression but it doesn’t explicitly tell you that, making it ever more resonant. In other words, this song understands what it means to be depressed. Unfortunately, the rest of these songs don’t.
B+ (the “+” for the title track and closer alone)