a minor place

Ah, moments, those little moments in music - they are the quintessence of the art, when things come together in perfect unity, expressing an emotion, an idea, a force, in the space of seconds. Often the entry of a song into the realm of the amazing hinges on such a moment, or moments, which form a fulcrum in the flow of sound and lyric that blasts open the meaning of the composition to shine forth in glorious harmony. Sometimes, though, they are disharmonious, antagonistic - they reveal the previous lines of the song to be a kind of ruse, a ploy, a trick, and split it at the seams to bare its true meaning.

Spencer Krug, of Wolf Parade and Sunset Rubdown, has always been a man of moments; I'm sure you can name your own artists or songs whose moments just slay you. But I come to this post today thinking of a different musician and a single moment: one Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Will Oldham, and that crucial turn in his masterful 'Hard Life', the closing track of Master and Everyone.

For the first few minutes, the song ambles along, a fairly pretty, subdued country pastiche, as Oldham and his vocal partner Marty Slayton meander through platitudes such as "And it's a hard life, for a man with no wife / Babe, it's a hard life, God makes you live" in that typically country way, where the emotion behind the lyric is one step removed from the voice itself, which remains composed. This continues, the sparse acoustic - the album itself is marked by a palpable spareness - gently strumming along.

And then it happens, around 1.59 - there is little forewarning, the bars immediately preceding have followed the established structure. But there it is, the slightest of chord changes, and the most poignant of shifts in the voice of Oldham himself, as his voice, always slightly rough, takes on an unmistakeable tenderness and sense of longing, the ends of words stretching out, as he sings:

But I ain't breathing, let me breathe
Let me go, let me leave
I don't know, but I might lose
I might bum, might blow a fuse

And then on the next verse, an electric guitar - both warm and cold in its tone (think of the same sound Oldham and Matt Sweeney achieve on Superwolf) - accompanies the acoustic, as Oldham becomes more insistent and yet somehow sadder, "So let me go, lay it down / On my own, let me drown", his voice taking on a an almost canine longing. And in a few dozen seconds, Oldham has somehow turned the mood of the universe around, and this is all the more amazing for the subtlety with which he does so. There is no hystronics or abrupt gear shifts here, just a slight tilt of the scales, a shift in the breeze, that brings with it an ocean of meaning.


feel right