The Song Not The Singer

"Palace's Will Oldham throws up a challenge to mass rock culture."

by Terri Sutton

Spin, April 1996


Sitting in a Chicago sushi restaurant, Will Oldham of the lo-rent roots-wreckers Palace has just confessed to me his attraction to techno. People with "ghettoized interests" in traditional music, Oldham goes on, are "choosing not to be involved with the present." So, are the hollow drum-machine rhythms on Palace's newest and bleakly tangled album Arise Therefore part of a self-conscious dive into electronics? "Not really," he smiles. The preferred drummer wasn't available, and a 20-year-old machine was. He didn't even have to program it. "The beats were just there; a foot pedal turns it on and off." Well, you have to begin somewhere. "Seriously," he says, "I think it's a good start."

Don't be shocked if Oldham has caught the sampling bug - the singer has earned a reputation in indie rock as an elusive rule-breaker. The name of his band has shifted with nearly every album, from Palace Brothers to Palace Songs to Palace. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Oldham seldom stays long at the same address; he's never had a steady band, working instead with a varying pool of musicians that includes his brothers, members of Slint, Gastr del Sol, and even professors and writers on leave from their jobs.

Palace songs stumble and splinter, Oldham's vocals quavering madly. His lyrics wander like journeys and never resolve. On 1993's There Is No One What Will Take Care Of You, Oldham cracked open apocalyptic hillbilly music and found secret tales of gender confusion. On Days In The Wake he wandered (mostly) alone through acoustic country blues, playing card tricks with identity and authenticity. 1995's Viva Last Blues forced the big-dick strut of mid-70s outlaw country to speak to the scary transformations and vulnerabilities of sex. Oldham has made impermanence his motto and most recurring theme.

Oldham is notoriously reluctant to discuss his music. "Assuming that a voice and guitar implies confession or self-expression doesn't seem like a very productive line of thinking," he observes softly. I suggest that a song is no guarantee of its singer's honesty, wit, sensitivity, or politics. "I will always rewrite a song that seems like it is too connected to a real event. Because the intention is always to create the hyperreal event, so that - ideally - more people can relate to it."

Rock'n'roll fans often have a hard time accepting that distinction; two such are making a din in the next booth. "Dylan's astonishing!" cries the man. Ah, time to pledge allegiance to the rock icons again. Oldham shakes his head. A song is a compendium, even a fiction, he suggests, a sketch for the audience to fill in from their experiences and memories. Collaborative in a different way, his song-making includes input from a trio of foils: occasional writing partner Bryan Rich, Dan Koretzky from his label Drag City, and the woman Oldham lives with. Whatever musicians help record the song leave their mark as well. Viva Last Blues would not have been such a raucous ride were it not for guest drummer Jason Loewenstein, on loan from Sebadoh, who plays "loud."

Gastr del Sol's David Grubbs adds a spare inquisitive piano to the dirgey and nearly unvarying instrumental arrangement of Arise Therefore - an album that, Oldham notes wonderingly, "doesn't seem to be about movement at all." He describes the new songs as hovering, still, mired. If a couple of cuts mention change and motion, "they seem almost to refer to it vainly." He shrugs, "I don't really think of this record as a Palace record. This one seems so weird that I'm eager to see what other people think about it."

"I am a cinematographer," an old Palace song once declared, and Oldham, who in his younger days had a part in John Sayles's Matewan, says he's found echoes of his new album in films he's seen recently, especially Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano. "Although I don't necessarily recommend the movie, like I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend the record." He also cites current Chinese cinema, with its numbed characters, thwarted by absurd beliefs and social rituals. "Not the Hong Kong ones, but Red Firecracker Green Firecracker, Raise the Red Lantern, Story of Qui Ju. They're sort of cold movies. Cold and colorful."

The couple at the next table have finished worshipping the Beach Boys' social conscience ("They did a song called 'Student Demonstration Time'!") and are finally leaving. "This is cool," Oldham stage-whispers. "Think they're gonna screw after lunch?" In this restaurant, at least, Palace's version of rock'n'roll -- song-based, ever-changing, collaborative -- has bested, or at least outlasted, that oppressive old-heroes tale. Still, thinking of Arise Therefore's fixed constellations, its nearly hopeless scenarios, I worry a little. And not just for Oldham.


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