In the 20-odd years of Ned Oldham’s musical life, he’s been a pendulum, swinging back and forth between writing his own words and using those of others. “I get tired of the sound of my own lyrical voice,” says Oldham.
And so since releasing the 7-inch record Hello My/The Free Web with The Anomoanon in 1997, Oldham has swung from writing to borrowing and back again. In 1998, he and the band set Mother Goose rhymes to original music (The Anomoanon’s Mother Goose, 1998); in 1999, both Anomoanon releases, Summer Never Ends and the Portland/Now Is The Season 7-inch, were original lyrics; in 2000, he borrowed again for Songs From Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses; wrote his own for 2001’s The Anomoanon; borrowed from 15th-century French poet François Villon for 2002’s Envoi Villon; and so on, ruminating on a country- and Southern rock-influenced folk sound through it all.
In 2014, Oldham released “New Year Carol,” a recording of traditional Welsh lyrics set to an Oldham-composed tune. So for his latest release, Dark Mountain, he traverses the landscape back to his own lyrical voice, carrying with him mementos of recordings past.
Oldham has released the five Dark Mountain songs one by one on his Bandcamp page over the course of this year and he says they are similar to the early Anomoanon originals “Hello” and “The Free Web” in that there seems to be a character, but, in fact, there’s no storyline, “just a sort of emotional tension, a painting of a situation” across all five songs, “an impression,” if you will.
The impression Oldham’s going for with the Dark Mountain songs “might be traceable” back to a story he saw in the New York Times Magazine in April 2014, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It…and He Feels Fine.” The story is about the Dark Mountain Project based in Britain, which defines itself on its website as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilization tells itself. We see that the world is entering an age of ecological collapse, material contraction and social and political unraveling, and we want our cultural responses to reflect this reality rather than denying it.”
Oldham is captivated by the project’s idea of “uncivilization,” of its embrace of pagan/pre-Christian traditions as described in the Times article, such as people donning huge papier-mâché badger heads in warm tents, and dancing and chanting around a bonfire on the heath.
Oldhamdidn’t want to become part of the Dark Mountain Project, but he says he’s fascinated with “the kind of weird attraction people have to pagan cultures, maybe even without a full realization” of it. “I love to read Icelandic literature, Icelandic sagas, but I don’t want to live that way—they’re killing each other, brutally, all the time,” Oldham says. “But that is a part of humanity that needs some kind of expression sometimes, so, maybe, some of the things in these songs are trying to blend some of the beauty and the terror, or horror, of that kind of human legacy.”
Sure enough, there it is, beauty beside horror, life beside death, constancy beside change, all in the first verse of the first of the songs, “Dark Mountain”: “The truth was such a beauty / It could eat you from the inside / Like a rosebud in the bonfire / On the first of May at midnight.”
“The truth is that I love you,” Oldham ends the song, “I love the April flowers / And the storm that gathers over / The dark mountain.”
That confrontation and acceptance of reality, that opening of the eyes to that which was previously unseen in the darkness, appears again and again in the Dark Mountain songs, in lyrics like “Inside her tomb / Within her womb” from “Behind the Sun.” There may be end in the future, but there’s future in the end, and that is both comforting and unsettling for the present.
Though all five Dark Mountain songs are tied, Oldham says he did not “write them all in one birth.” They emerged over the course of about a year and a half, partly from Oldham’s own mind and partly from collaborative sessions with another Charlottesville-based musician: guitarist, songwriter and composer Jordan Perry, who contributed guitar work and vocals as well as string arrangements and synthesizer parts.
They recorded the Dark Mountain songs in Oldham’s Charlottesville home studio and sent the recordings to be mixed and mastered by Oldham’s brother, Paul, a sought-after audio engineer (a third Oldham brother, Will, writes and records under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy).
Part of the challenge was to make that gloomy atmosphere “good to listen to,” says Oldham, so he and Perry built most of the arrangements around two electric guitars, something Oldham had never done before, and it made for a good experiment. “Part of me wants to be in a party band,” Oldham says, “but I can’t help what I write.”
The final two songs on Dark Mountain will be released this week, and Oldham and Perry will make a somewhat rare live appearance to perform them at the Jefferson Theater on Tuesday. “I don’t want to play [live] too much; people might get sick of me,” Oldham says unconvincingly, his grin audible over the phone. Surely not, for as the Oldham pendulum swings back and forth, listeners will follow.