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Will Oldham - Seafarers Music

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Artist: Will Oldham

Album: Seafarers Music

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 5, 2004

Seafarers Music is soundtrack material for a new feature-length documentary by filmmaker Jason Massot. Apparently Will Oldham saw a rough cut of the film and liked it so much that he offered to compose the score. I have not seen the film, but Seafarers Music surprised me anyway – I'd imagined an Oldham score for a film about a Swedish, a Polynesian, a Croatian, and a Nigerian sailor to sound like the sea shanties of C. Fox Smith and Rudyard Kipling, maybe with a dash of Raindogs’ brio. Instead these are somber, meditative, and restrained instrumentals, curiously effacing while at the same time the first songs released under Oldham’s own name since 2000.

The EP consists of four tracks, ostensibly named for the film’s four seafarers: Sapele, Lars, Bogo, and Emmanuel. All are similar in the sense that they’re slight, acoustic meditations – repetitive guitar figures marked by subtle inflections of second guitar and bass. They evoke the sea insofar as its expanse undulates in a million individual ripples. Likewise, the score’s cyclical sameness is disrupted and deepened by altered bass lines, misplaced squeaks, and expressive bits of vibrato. To this degree the music is meditative, or encourages meditation. Sir Francis Bacon once noted, rather aptly, “it is a strange thing, that in sea voyages, where there is nothing to be seen, but sky and sea, men should make diaries; but in land-travel, wherein so much is to be observed, for the most part they omit it.” These songs play to that conceit; they’re pared to such an extent that they invite close attention, and their moods shift and evolve over the course of one listen or many. Curiously, three of the four themes are remarkably similar, near-variations on each other. “Sapele,” “Lars,” and “Emmanuel” play around similarly tight arpeggios, communicating a coiled sense of dread. By contrast, “Bogo” is a great deal lighter and more hopeful. In the context of a voyage, it’s music for leaving harbor with the mainsheet out, sails swelled confidently with wind.

Though recorded for other reasons, these fragile songs feel like ideal exit music, however unwittingly, for Master and Everyone, last year’s icily beautiful portrait of a man confronting the implications of a failed relationship. On that record Oldham unconvincingly proclaims, “I’m like a bird freed from his cage,” which begs the age-old question of where to fly? For the romantic there are a finite number of acceptable paths. There’s west, but our hero’s already been (Western Songs). He’s squared up to face death, too, and moved past it (I See A Darkness). The sea, of course, remains a plausible option. As Ishmael said, “with a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.” Emotionally these songs fit very comfortably in that mode: they play like a tentative step out of the shackles of Master, a tiptoeing down to the wharf for a long look around. Whatever their context, their pleasures are small but certain.

By Nathan Hogan

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