Music As Reading: Mixtape X, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, by Jack Underwood
We could drive down to another beach,
Even tan, your skin seems white;
All our friends have gone away from here,
So let’s disappear from sight.
We were going to save this one for a special occasion. But earlier this week, I saw Bonnie “Prince” Billy sing in a gorgeous late-medieval church in Coventry, and it was such a sublime experience that I figured we owed it to the Silkworms readership to offer them something of it.
Jack Underwood wrote a poem about Bonnie “Prince” Billy in his superb Faber New Poets pamphlet, the fourth of the first crop. We thought getting a chap who’d attempted to distil something of BPB into verse to then re-soundtrack his poem, as it were, via a sequence of songs, by BPB and others which constitute the musical basis of his relationship with the singer’s work, would represent a fascinating (if somewhat confusing) Music As Reading experience. The following represents a compelling insight into one of the most interesting Young British Poets Working Today’s ideas about music interacting with reading/writing and vice versa (and, indeed, a pretty good introduction to what makes BPB such an extraordinary artist).
(The poem, Bonnie “Prince” Billy can be located in Faber New Poets 4, published by Faber & Faber. Jack’s mixtape is, due to even more pronounced Spotify shortcomings than were apparent last week, our first YouTube Mixtape. Click on the track-title for audio/video.)
- My Home is the Sea – BPB and Matt Sweeney (Superwolf)
- You Will Miss Me When I Burn – BPB (Greatest Palace Music)
- FYH – Mat Riviere (Follow Your Heart – Riviere’s brother, the poet Sam Riviere, first played me BPB. I was in his room, we were at art-school, the song was No More Workhorse Blues I think.)
- No Bad News – BPB (The Letting Go – I don’t know this album that well, but I like the prickly folksong verses.)
- Kiss – Scout Niblett feat. Will Oldham (This Fool Can Die Now – when I went to see BPB I bumped into Scout Niblett in the foyer and got my ticket signed! I’m a big fan. I think her shrill voice on this track is skin-crawly good, and the video’s good fun too. Just a beautiful, dangerous song really)
- I See A Darkness – BPB (I See A Darkness – lots of people think this is BPB’s best album. I’m not so sure. I think I like the spangley, slightly ‘too-much’ country and western stuff on Greatest Palace Music more. Palace Music, the earlier record, is also interesting because it’s earthier and more DIY. Anyway, the point is, this is a great, moving song, but I think it’s a bit self-consciously reaching for a dark place, or ‘minor place’ as he puts it, and I think he does that better when he’s not trying so hard.)
- The Brute Choir – BPB (Greatest Palace Music – this is precisely that OTT, lush country and western thing I was talking about: those ladies singing ‘the choir, the choir’ at the end and the wonderful slidey lapsteel. I also love how this song develops without really repeating itself. And of course, that rolling piano.)
- Joan of Arc – Leonard Cohen (Songs of Love and Hate – I think BPB lives in this song a bit. Perhaps it’s the voice of fire speaking, which has that kind of melodrama about it, but in any case there just has to be a common lineage here: see/hear next track!)
- The Way – BPB (Master and Everyone – see/hear what I’m getting at?)
- Sittin’ In An All Night Cafe – Warner Mack (No real link to BPB here, except that I think he generally makes country music accessible or more palatable to the more ignorant, pop-washed listener. So I thought I’d put one of my favourite country songs on here!)
- The Static That Comes From My Broken Heart – Herman Dune (Mas Cambios – people who bought ‘Bonnie Prince Billy’ also bought ‘Herman Dune’.
- Gulf Shores – BPB (Greatest Palace Music – this is my favourite BPB song: the candy-striped swimsuit, letting the family down and the suggestion that ‘we could drive down to another beach’ as if that might somehow help the situation. I just think this is so lyrically well-pitched, and although I never had one in mind, if one song were to prompt me to write my poem again, it would be this one. But of course, if the poem works, it’s really about all songs, or at least whichever one the reader brings to mind.)