The Signifying Wolf: The Haunting Fragility of “Wai Notes”

Wai Notes

It is a rainy Friday afternoon and what a perfect time to revisit one of my favorite albums, which is the rare gem called “Wai Notes” by Dawn McCarthy & Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Quietly released after BPB’s beautifully orchestrated/produced album “The Letting Go,” “Wai Notes” reframes many of the songs from “The Letting Go” through a much more lo-fi production and, moreover, strips the songs down to their bones, almost inviting us, calling us, to the nightime porch or cellar as an intimate guest. What really moves me is the ethereal haunting melodies of McCarthy as she drifts over the grimey (gorgeously grimey) songs juxtaposing with Bonnie’s tender yet hopefully dismal whispers.

This album serves as a reminder of that warm space that first drew me to Bonnie’s work when I was 16 years old watching Palace perform in the afternoon sun one day in suburban Detroit. Turning once again to my ‘eyeslitcrypt’ companion, E.M. Cioran as he writes, “Between the demand to be clear and the temptation to be obscure, impossible to decide which deserves more respect (from “Anathemas and Admirations, pg. 200).” “Wai Notes” plays with the two poles of clarity and obscurity and finds a safe meeting place for the two to revel. The mingling of obscurity and clarity comes through the hiss and muffle of the non-production, the at times sloppy strumming of Bonnie and the angelic overtones of McCarthy. It is through clarity that Bonnie greets us, but it is a hazy greeting, an ambiguous greeting. We receive this album as a child peeking into a basement window overhearing the rehearsal. That is, it it difficult to enter the inner space of this album, there is a haze of smoke floating across the basement window.

Why this album was released so quietly, I don’t know, but it almost seems that a gem like this needs to be discovered in such a quiet way. This album will especially ring true for those who have stuck with Bonnie through the years but may not serve as the best starting point to his work (I personally recommend “I See a Darkness,” “Greatest Palace Music” or “Master and Everyone”). However, I can imagine someone, say, after a devastating storm, being thrown from one’s house into a foreign place, moving among the rubble and finding a copy of “Wai Notes,” listening and discovering the richness of this world, these “notes” and finding a personal comfort in it. There is a haunting fragility to these pieces and an intimacy that glows with enchantment.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, this album colors the sky. The rain seems to melt into the speakers.

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