In California, quail and dumplings isn’t a thing. When Will Oldham, recording here as Bonnie “Prince” Billy on his 11th full-length using the moniker, sings quite convincingly about this meal as the ideal, the hope, it doesn’t really matter if the listener has no connection to it. And isn’t that an indicator of some sort of greatness? When a songwriter can take an audience into a completely foreign world and make them, to some extent, empathize with the sentiment and feel the desired emotion as if they grew up entrenched in the same reality of the songwriter?
This is not a new trick for Oldham, but it is very much the backbone of Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues. Oldham has been transporting listeners into the beautiful darkness of Appalachia for decades. Recently, particularly on 2008’s Lie Down in the Light, the darkness, which he saw so vividly on his appropriately titled 1999 masterpiece I See A Darkness, has given way to brightness, to flickers of sadness within the general joy of life. Opener “Night Noises” doesn’t tip-toe around in the unknown, with Oldham singing “hate is in the closet, it must be somewhere out of sight.” Even though Oldham claims “night noises are [his] noises,” the melody is illuminating, the work of a songwriter who leads listeners into the black night by the hand, with a torch illuminating all the shadowy corners.
Most of Singer’s Grave a Sea of Tongues waits for dawn to confront the audience. Despite titles like “Whipped” and “Old Match,” the gospel choir backing assists Oldham in his battles, whether it is love on the former or life in the latter. “I love my dreams,” Oldham sings on “Old Match,” “and most of them love me back / But I’m not match for waking life, and it’s no match for me.” It’s all very inspirational stuff, not without its complexities and, at times, futility. But, if the album does anything right (and it does a lot right), it is capturing the contradicting emotions of a life and trying to reconcile them, so that the listener doesn’t have to do the same.
On the stunning “New Black Rich (Tusks),” Oldham basks in his own sadness, saying “goodbye before we meet” and dropping cannonballs like “it’s not who I was but who I’ll never be.” Backed by heartbroken fiddles and electric guitars, it is the album’s most intimate moment, and it’s the opposite end of the spectrum of “Quail and Dumplings.” But this moment of sadness is followed by the lead line of “Sailor’s Grave a Sea of Sheep”: “once in a while, I can’t stifle a smile, even now that things come to a closing.” “It’s okay,” Oldham declares, “you can say I’ve had my day, but my god and I don’t see it that way.” Through triumphs and tragedies, life continues for Oldham, with hopefully better days ahead, the eternal optimist more hopeful than usual. His hope brings the same to listeners. And the need for hope is something that everyone can relate to, more so that a regional meal.