Wednesday, August 3, 2011

from Lee County, Iowa

The first time I ever heard of the name William Elliott Whitmore was while doing one of my favourite activities, which is wandering aimlessly through a record store, idly looking around until something catches my attention. There was a small listening station sort of hidden behind one of the shelves with a new record that had just came out up for listening. The carefully arranged and rather creepy animal skeleton and skull on the cover and the fact that it was called 'Hymns For The Hopeless' intrigued me. I'm not one usually to slap on store headphones and listen to something, but this was 2003 and although that age had started already, we still weren't quite able to download every song in existence off our phones or whatever, so I did it, piqued by the curiosity about this strangely dark-looking album. As soon as William's voice came out of those headphones, singing 'Cold And Dead' (and those titles!) entirely a capella, I wasn't in the record store anymore. I was transported out of the city, out of 2003, very nearly out of myself by this old man with the deep voice. Who was he? Why hadn't I heard of him before? I skipped to the second song, 'Sometimes Our Dreams Float Like Anchors', just to check if all the album was a capella, and as the banjo cut through my heart, I just put the headphones down, grabbed a copy of the record from the shelf, went to the counter with it and rushed home. There was something special here, something that didn't deserve being listened to in a store.

So that was eight years ago. Those songs have since become such an integral part of me that I can be, I don't know, reading a book and listening to them and singing them to myself at the same time without even noticing it. 'Burn My Body', as I've mentioned before, is the song I'd like people who liked me to sing when I die, preferably while doing the exact same thing the song suggests. William, though I've never met him, is the sort of artist that has become a part of my daily life too. With my friends and family, who have all been ordered to discover him, of course, he's mentioned as if he's some guy I know down the pub. You might imagine my surprise when I eventually found out, a couple of days after buying that first album, and no thanks to its wonderfully minimalist black booklet, that William was actually a tattoed, bearded dude, active member of the DIY punk/hardcore community, and also that he was born on the same year as me, despite that hundred-year-old voice. An honest voice. It's the voice of an old soul, a gravely, tired yet hopeful voice, the voice of a hard working man who nevertheless recognizes the poetry of daily life.  The sort of man who, to promote a new album, goes for a chat with his grandma about the farm where his family has lived, and where he lives now too. Those songs on 'Hymns For The Hopeless' turned out to not be entirely hopeless. Bleak, yes, fully aware of the constant presence of death in our lives, yes. But not hopeless. Even the raw gospel-like closer 'Our Paths Will Cross Again' (Will has a knack for the particularly touching last song - 'Porchlight', 'A Good Day To Die', 'Not Feeling Any Pain'), where everyone is dead - father, mother, lover - is strangely uplifting, almost hopeful that death isn't really the final end to all this.

His career has been a wonder to follow as well. He has been productive, with a few bits and pieces always being done besides the albums, like a couple of Daytrotter sessions, a Latitudes session, a collaboration album with Jenny Hoyston of Erase Errata, even a song for the Red Dead Redemption soundtrack. 'Field Songs', the new album which motivated this post, maintains the healthy, uncluttered, simple approach to songs William has kept during the other four albums. Where other artists vaguely within this ballpark like Eric Bachmann with Crooked Fingers or even Sam Beam with Iron & Wine, tend to feel the need to start expanding their instrumentation and their arrangements, moving gradually away from the rawer and very frequently more fascinating beginnings, William has kept it mostly to voice, banjo and guitar, with the occasional friend helping out with a discreet appearance of a required instrument, but mostly keeping to just writing great songs with what the means he's always had. Even on the album that might have been his "maturing" effort, 2008's 'Animals In The Dark', while it does stray a little bit thematically from his norm, showing a more global world view and political comment (through the eyes of the man of the country still, however), musically it's not that big of a stretch. The evolution throughout the albums has been kept to songs just getting better and better. When you can pen a tune like the deeply, harrowingly touching 'Everything Gets Gone' from the new album, that's all you really need. "But I'm just here for a little while," he sings on that song. We all are, in a way, but let's hope we all hang on for a little more still. There's still more fields to be plowed, stories to be told, and songs to be sung.

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