Lonnie Holley : Oh Me Oh My

Lonnie Holley‘s 2018 album MITH is the crown jewel of his body of work. It’s a spectral and hazy celestial blues record, with music that drifted and effloresced like opium clouds and the gas of nebulas in the dark of space, intoned rather than sung, achieving with seemingly little effort what the entire modern wing of Nick Cave’s career seems to drive toward. It was deconstructed to its maximum, allowing the poet-saint Holley to unfurl these beautiful stream-of-consciousness observations, reeling more like the Pythia of Apollo at Delphi than a singer. It leaves the question: After you’ve captured the clear and perfect heart of your overall project, where do you go from there?

His collaboration with Matthew White, which I at the time incorrectly identified as being more driven by Holley than it was, turned out to still do exactly what I had guessed. The sense of solidity and salt to those still deeply poetic flag banners of lyrics provided a sense of graspable materiality to it all, that these weren’t just hymnals but real observations of the world, tales of the flesh and not just the spirit. It feels perfectly fitting that Oh Me Oh My follows that arc a step further, taking on at times the belly-rumbling deep funk of records like My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Suddenly, Holley feels concretized, crystallized, that what once was abstract is now made not only a physical monument but a living man. The collaborations, spanning from art rock unknowns to megastars like R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, only intensify this sense; it’s as though suddenly this submerged connectivity to the broader world that had been present in Holley’s work all along is suddenly made manifest. If MITH is the misty depths of spiritual space, Oh Me Oh My is the dense clay and heat of the earth, with Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection the rim of sky between as interlocutor.

There is a weariness in this funk that reminds more of Fela Kuti than the Gap Band. Kuti would rage in spiritual darkness, a wild fire of rage roaring across Africa and threatening to scorch Europe and America and even his own home continent down the throat. Holley doesn’t go quite that far, rarely boiling over with that same kind of intensity, but the root of sorrow still lingers here. You get the sense when he’s singing of togetherness, of the way life on the earth and the nature of suffering unites us as one continuous flesh, that he isn’t oblivious in any way to the reality of the suffering. It’s easy for this kind of stuff to reek of New Age bullshit, underselling the reality of pain. Not so here; a quick glimpse at his biography confirms as much, that he knows what he’s talking about, the straining notes of hope in his voice aren’t naive starstruck idealism but something coming from a hard-earned experiential wisdom. Even in joy, Oh Me Oh My has the same air of sadness that MITH possessed. It’s hard for me to shake the sense of listening to my grandfather speak, not always saying things I agree with but always speaking from the heart, trying desperately to impart things he finds of value before he goes.

Of course, the deep poeticism of an elder blues statesman still possesses that great Walt Whitman cadence. He is deeply unconcerned with rhyme, speaking so close to the heart that avoiding cliche isn’t necessary at all. Typically, I’m not much of a lyric listener anyway, focusing more on the timbre and musical quality of the voice, but Holley here just as anywhere feels so fully in-tune with the spirit of the music that the words feel like they naturally emerge from it rather than being superimposed as just a vehicle for another melodic line. Hearing him sing is like hearing your mind wander while listening to jazz, the way your brain subconsciously picks up on the chord progression and rhythmic function of what you have on as its constructing its wandering thoughts. Only here, they’re additional intoned by someone with a perfectly aged blues sonority, yelping and crooning and groaning at what feel like such perfect moments that it can’t possibly be a human. The songs simply are this way, the musical shape of the vocal line emerging as a plain natural fact.

Oh Me Oh My confirms the promise of this wing of Holley’s career the masterwork MITH promised, capitalizing on the developments and teased sonic directions of Broken Mirror while showing that the musical environments that Holley can gainfully function in far exceed the Lonnie Smith spiritualist vibe of that earlier record. It’s thrilling to see someone his age making such profoundly vital and moving music that also in turn seems to tear down its own walls. Given the sonic span of the past three records featuring him, it now feels almost impossible to guess what direction the followup to this record might take, feeling equally as likely that it will become nervy new wave or abstract electronic music as it might wild psychedelic jams or full-on jazz arrangements. I suspect, like those earlier records, this one might not be heard as widely as it should; I feel confident, however, that it will be deeply treasured by those that do.

Label: Jagjaguwar

Year: 2023

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