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I find artists that deal with spirituality in an exploratory way refreshing and am therefore drawn to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. I find it altogether too dismissive to simply view religion as foolish and atheism as the only choice for everybody. Also Gods and religion are familiar metaphors and symbols that can be understood fairly universally and, coming from a literary background, I can’t believe simply dismissing that rich seam of material is the best way forward. Even if that makes sense to me, it worries me that it is supposed to be so blindly followed and I also suspect that some religious people may be pretty darned intelligent. I guess I have the same problem with atheism as I do with religion, there both just clubs that people have to exclude others while embracing some. This little piece will look at a couple of paragraphs from Oldham on the subject of religion in interviews for the book edited by Alan Licht which came out earlier this year as well as the lyrics to the perhaps deceptively titled ‘There is No God’, a single released by BPB last year and a few other words too.  Anyway, over to Will Oldham a.k.a. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (persona and identity will become part of the issue) on language, religion, bricks and mortar:

‘Our brains are so powerful and so is language, but language is like the bricks, and religion and philosophy end up becoming like the mortar that holds those bricks together. There are so many gaps in the logic of this language and how it can explain our plight, our existence, our successes, and that’s where religion seems to fit in. Language is too incomplete and religion fills in. Why do I feel bad when this happens? Well, religion comes in and says you don’t have to think about it. You can go to work the next day or do whatever, you don’t have to think about it. It fills in the cracks of what we can’t speak about, what we can’t say.

What is normally called religion is what I would tend to call music – participating in music, listening to music, making records and singing. I think records and music are more appropriate and more respectful of the human soul than the churches are. And more respectful of the needs of humans to communicate with the aspects of themselves that are neglected by language. I don’t think people think about God so much as they think about themselves and how they’re going to get through life.’

From Will Oldham on Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy ed. Alan Licht (Faber & Faber, London 2012) p. 46-7

The first paragraph quoted above essentially accepts that we cannot fill in all the gaps in our knowledge as some of them may be beyond language itself and thus inexpressible. This argument is close to one used by religious people as irrefutable proof of God and yet it also works the opposite way for me and BPB too I suspect. Essentially, this paragraph also says that when things are too difficult to deal with because of the sheer effort that may involve, it’s easier to just cop out with God – out not off. BPB is a man who accepts that belief in God exists and how it is used. He does not appear to be offering religion up as a positive or a negative in the extract, merely identifying it though perhaps a little dismissively in terms of its intellectual value.

The second paragraph looks at a more acceptable approach to religion from his point of view: music. Music here is seen as a form of collective worship which does sound pretty Christian in its thinking. Music is seen as preferable to church but nevertheless becomes the ‘mortar’ of the previous paragraph. Music then comes in and prevents difficult thought, it fills in the cracks of what we can’t speak about. Does this also mean that music is being dismissed as unintellectual? Can the lyrics to ‘There is no God’ be applied to music as well as religion? Does the song act so as to question its own existence? Time to consider the lyric to that song…

Bonnie Prince Billy – There is no God (originally released as a charity record to raise money to Save our Gulf and the Turtle Hospital)

There is no God
But that which surrounds the tongue
That which sees love in the chest
That which puts mouth on cock and vagina
Well,  THAT that is best.

There is no prayer
But that which is sung in laughter
That which is lovingly uttered
Or through gritted teeth
That which is hissed or muttered.

There is no God
There are those who will outlive you
There is a force that is many
There are teachings and taught
There is tons, there is one, there is not any! (‘courtesy’ of Royal Stable Music, I guess)

The first two verses reveal the song’s deception. It is not an atheist anthem as its seemingly bold title is immediately undermined by the ‘But’ of lines 2 and 7. It seems that there is a God in the details, which is where we are supposed to believe that the devil is according to some. He seems to be in our spittle, inside the chest rather than hearts and in the idea for oral sex. It is to be noted that Billy cracks up a little when singling the ‘cock and vagina’ line. This does seem to be a playful introduction to a playful god. Yes, it seems that God came up with the idea for oral sex and THAT God is best. Maybe the message is that there is a God and we should appreciate the ‘naughty’ though not expressly forbidden acts that he must also have created. Another area for consideration is whether the song is stating that God is everywhere or whether God is in all the insignificant things in life and not some towering, omnipotent overlord. Prayer seems to be most sincere in laughter but can also be insincere as when it is a verbal utterance, it seems two-faced. The final verse has no ‘but’, it seems to state that there is no God but our collective society or ‘many’ and yet these numbers are rendered insignificant by the end. Wouldn’t this make a wonderful sermon or ‘Thought for the Day’? Especially the ‘cock and vagina’ bits. This brings to mind the words of Oldham’s earlier Palace Brothers song ‘(I was Drunk) at the Pulpit’ –

“I was drunk at the pulpit, I knew it was wrong
I left in mid-sermon, tempted by a bar-house song
The pews creaked and shifted as they turned to watch me leave
And I pulled a little bottle from the pocket in my sleeve”

This song has a clearer message which suggests that drunken singing in a bar is much better for the soul than singing and praying in church. A sentiment I would heartily agree with though he may mean its good for the ‘chest’ rather than the soul.

'Princely' and 'Bonny' Bonnie 'Prince' Billy?

‘Princely’ and ‘Bonny’ Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy?

Going back to my prior argument, does the god of the song act as a metaphor for music rather than God? Well, not really as then the ‘prayer’ being ‘sung in laughter’ becomes muddled but then again Jesus was supposed to be the son and the father so maybe this is deliberate – music is made to honour music, music can be taught and it teaches, it is a powerful force and perhaps the final line suggests a suddenly wiped hard drive. Also, BPB has sung elsewhere that ‘You call on God and God is dead’ in ‘Love Comes To Me’, not exactly a lot of scope for belief there. However, another issue that needs some consideration is the difference between Will Oldham and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy as surely the latter acts as a kind of persona for the writer Will Oldham. If all the songs, except the ‘Joya’ album, are coming from a persona, then surely God with or without a capital letter is merely God for the persona Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and leaves no clues to actual belief. Instead, we need to go back to the interview extracts to look at the real role of religion in Will Oldham’s life and it does seem to be irrelevant unless we are to assume that God is music and music is love, not God. However, that was a particularly stoned sounding Dave Crosby song from the most stoned sounding album title of all time – ‘If I Could Only Remember My Name’ – sure, it might mean what’s left if everything is stripped away except a name, but this is Dave Crosby we’re talking about.