Bonnie Prince Billy - I See a Darkness (retro review) (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick

Bonnie Prince Billy

I See a Darkness (retro review) (1999)


William Oldham was a prolific singer/songwriter before I See a Darkness. From ’93 to ’97, he released an album a year, under monikers Palace Brothers and Palace Music and eventually under his own name. But in 1999, he changed it up once again. In his twenty-ninth year, Bonnie “Prince” Billy was born, and his first full length was I See a Darkness.

As a winter release, I See a Darkness made perfect sense. It was introverted and sad and constantly felt like it was trying to escape itself, the eleven songs dealing with death or unhappiness. Opening track “A Minor Place” immediately showed off Oldham’s shaky voice and minimalist approach. “If I am gone and with no trace, I will be in a minor place,” he sang, as depressing as it was stunning. The same warble is heard throughout “Nomadic Revery (All Around)” and continued from there. Especially as the motifs grew heavier. The title track was especially haunting with its repeated, “Oh no I see a darkness.” The aforementioned darkness had multiple meanings – depression, sadness, and obviously, the end. That set up “Death to Everyone,” which was about exactly what it promised. There was ironically a little more life to the song than those that preceded it, but the general theme remained intact. “Madeleine-Mary” sounded like a bar stomper. While not exactly uplifting, it acted as more of a tall tale than an intimate look inside Oldham’s head. It still haunted the listener but to a different degree. The same goes for “Black,” where Oldham sang to the titular character as both a buddy and his greatest enemy. The story, powerful and melancholy, played out over such well-written poetry.

Oldham had used the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name to create a beautifully haunting masterpiece. So much so that Pitchfork gave it a rare 10.0 rating upon release and placed it at number nine on their best albums of the 90’s. No matter how you feel about the publication, it showed a strong, suitable praise for the singer-songwriter's achievement. But perhaps nothing solidified Oldham’s songwriting more than when Johnny Cash covered “I See a Darkness” for his American series. Cash’s final albums found him acknowledging his own looming end, making Oldham’s song a perfect fit while giving it new life. Oldham himself would provide backing vocals on the later singer’s cover.

Oldham has used the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy for much of his prolific career. And while many of his records are great in their own right, none quite made it to the near perfection that is I See a Darkness. It’s an album that really has no definitive time stamp, sound wise. And the writing is so descriptive and striking, it’s easy to see how this became a template for up -and-coming singer-songwriters everywhere.