Ciaran Lavery has long been fascinated by Will Oldham. That’s Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to you and I – the nonconforming, ever moving American singer (and actor) who despite his plaudits, collaborations and consummate song writing has always stayed on the fringes. His slant is lo-fi, folky, alt-country. ‘Independent rock’ is a term associated with him. He is painfully private. He is also publicly prepared to write searingly, darkly, erotically on topics ranging from love, to the taboo. His are fragile moth-wing songs, intensely beautiful, casting long shadows. Sometimes uncomfortably long shadows.
A couple of years ago I heard Ciaran Lavery sing an a capella version of Billy’s ‘Careless Love‘ as the opening number for his set at the Black Box. This is a crafty technique that Lavery uses. The a capella draws a talkative room to the music on stage by being one single voice in a room full of voices. The sway this can have on a room suits a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song. It is undemanding, raw, feels no need to shout, and is utterly compelling.
Now Lavery has taken it further. His new EP A King At Night is a collection of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy songs that Lavery selected from Billy’s prolific back catalogue. Describing it as “a fitting nod of appreciation,” Lavery has released a five-track homage to an obvious hero of his. It’s a brave move. Who in their right mind takes on the glory and the hell of Will Oldham?
On ‘New Partner’ Lavery sings a tender reflection on love. There is a past that he still struggles with, and there is the long awaited soaring of joy. The song offers more words about that difficult past than it does on his new partner. It talks of “some awful action that just breathes from my hand,” as it struggles to escape the bad decisions that he won’t forgive himself for. However, now it seems he may have “paid for what I’ve done,” or at least paid somewhat towards it. Something has shifted. In Lavery’s mellow version of ‘New Partner’ the repeated “I’ve got a new partner, riding with me,” is timely, it’s looking forward, it’s an affirmation. Listening to Billy’s version (Viva Last Blues) is different. There’s a disconnect between the haunting past and the sudden jaunt of a new partner riding with him. There’s less sense of affirmation and more of convincing himself, or others. For Lavery though, this is a lush moving on. Vocals are gentle but never weak. Nothing feels broken, the padding of the strings and the harmonies make sure of that.
The strings continue with their task in ‘Beast For Thee‘. The cello manages to ground the song while at the same time make everything all at sea. The beautiful viola (I think), flying above the guitar and vocals brings a big sky into proceedings as it sparks and glides through the verse, firing past rooves.
“Why aren’t you kind to me?
You could so easily
Take me in your arms and see”
The viola momentarily stops for the next line – “A donkey”, and without the viola flying above, the donkey is earthbound, lumbering. The following words, “A beast for thee” bring in the cello, get the beast moving, swaying; an animate beast for the taking. This is a powerful, subtle, beautiful piece of work on a powerful, beautiful song.
To Oldham’s fathomless songs Lavery has added his own mark, his arrangements, his very particular voice. I’m not going to say I prefer Lavery’s versions, that wouldn’t be true, and I’m not sure that’s what he wants here. The clever creaking opening of ‘Bad Man‘ has caught me. The hand claps and the instrumentation bringing it to life. ‘New Partner‘ and ‘Beast For Thee‘ have followed me for weeks. Ciaran Lavery is caught in the otherworld of Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and with A King At Night, he has managed not so much to break that spell, rather, he’s cooked up his own.