Will Oldham may never admit to it, but in the world of alt.country mope-folk, he often comes out on top of a simple hierarchical ladder that would be organized in the following way:
“Master: Will Oldham,” engraved way up on top of said ladder, followed by a sizeable chasm of broken rungs, snapped under the weight of broken acoustic guitars, spiral notebooks and rivers of tears, until you find a second engraving, which reads “And Everyone,” on a rung large enough to fit everyone from the ubiquitous Bright Eyes and Cat Power to lesser-known (but greater) stars such as Smog and Damien Jurado.
That little scenario is not to say Oldham is the best on the ladder, but he has been the one setting the tone of the alt.country world since his start as the only constant in Palace Music to his current days as an apparent member of Irish aristocracy. But while the rest of the alt.country world has worked to find their own unique individual voices amongst the school of imitators, Oldham opened the school’s doors himself, back before it was cool to call yourself “country.” Through the years, he has had his own metamorphosis, becoming more stark and simple in his lyrics, moving into a sort of troubador no-man’s-land, where it is easy to find yourself lost in the nearly non-existent melodies of short-strummed guitars and the haunting harmonies of the word “ooooh.”
But even as he has aged and stripped down for all intents and purposes, Oldham’s intensity still rings through in his similar-yet-different brand of true folk music. By folk music, there is a historical simplicity to his work. Much in the way Alistair Roberts of Appendix Out has branched into the world of traditional Scottish tunes, the music on Master And Everyone has an anthropological intensity. The timelessness is inherent within the simplicity of the music.
The smooth voice of Oldham coos wistfully on mistaken emotional identity: “She loves the soul that I’ve never been/ A dog among dogs/ A man among men/ And every day/ When I come home to her/ She holds a phantom/ She kisses and she hugs him/ And I am not adverse to how she loves him/ Why must I live and walk unloved as what I am?” He is as emotionally complex as he has always been, lyrically being stripped to the core as his music is already. This empty space makes even the smallest of details raise hairs on my arm, and keeps the fires of attention stoked. Simple touches are there for those who listen close; “Joy and Jubilee” has a subtle wooden tapping that could be anything from foot on floor to hand on guitar — but this mystery of the smallest touches manages to flesh out the inner harmonies.
And like his work with the Amalgamated Songs of Rest (consisting of Oldham with Roberts and Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia), the lyrics still feel as if they are taken out of a historical document, preserved for ages in order to glean insights from the years passed, flowing as much as poetry than as lyrics. As a whole, the album makes you stop and focus on the minimalism; instead of being overwhelming with its sadness, it softly pushes against your ears, acting as more than just background music, but as questions that need to be answered. And only by an intensive amount of focus can one break into the words and music that Oldham lays out. As he has shown to his followers, it is sometimes the most simple gestures that ring the truest, and Oldham’s simplicity has helped to create yet another deceptively easy-going but moving quiet riot.