Will Oldham is what I would consider the consummate singer/songwriter of the 90s--and thereafter--indie rock scene. He has remained resolutely independent of major labels while building a body of work that is as large as it is consistent. Like similar artists John Darnielle (aka the Mountain Goats) and Jason Molina (aka Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co. et al), Oldham releases something once a year and has used many names (Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace, his own name), though he seems to have settled on the Bonnie 'Prince' Billy moniker around the turn of the millenium. Moreover, though he has some critically acknowledged masterpieces (particularly 1999's I See A Darkness), you can pretty much jump into his discography at any point because it's similar enough and every release is at least above average in quality.
Viva Last Blues was Oldham's third album, and, released in 1995, it feels like one of those touchstones for what true independent/underground musicians were doing during the rise and fall of "alternative" rock. If you were old enough to get sick of the mainstream and he so-called 'alternative' to the mainstream during this era, then albums like this were what you latched unto. While most of the world was turning up their amps and having Butch Vig produce their major label debut, Oldham was going to Alabama to record a country tinged album with Steve Albini. Of the sessions, and the other Oldham releases he worked on, Albini has said that Oldham doesn't rehearse the material with the band beforehand. Viva Last Blues has an atmosphere that captures the inspired spark of the moment, of players feeling their way through a song for the first or second time; the very same "strike while it's hot" vibe that John Darnielle goes for when he writes a song and scraps it unless he records it shortly afterward.
Personally, I've been mystified by Oldham's music often being filed under 'country.' Though a vein of rustic Americana runs throughout his work, nothing on Viva Last Blues sounds like either old fashioned country or newer, slicker country. Certainly the instruments on this album aren't foreign to country (guitar, bass, drums, organ/piano, electric guitar) but there isn't that twang factor that I associate with country or the necessary banjos to make it bluegrass-y. I would guess someone, somewhere, referred to this album as being alt-country during its release, but that doesn't quite seem right, either. The closest descriptor I can come up with is Bob Dylan's mid 60s to mid 70s folk/rock/country hybrid sound. It has the same very American sound with being blues, jazz, funk, or outright rock. So, Viva Last Blues is like that Dylan phase, only different and with a much better singer.
Indeed, Oldham's voice is what truly ties these songs together into the brilliant package that they are. Equally adept at low key ballads like 'We All, Us Three, Will Ride' and the ecstatic, yelped peaks of 'Work Hard/Play Hard', Oldham's versatile voice is both distinctive and easy to love. It also makes for a perfect duet or harmonizing foil, and the times on the album where his brother, Ned, or Sebadoh's Jason Loewenstein sing with him are some of its best: witness the album closer, 'Old Jersualem', which ends with just such a moment. Elsewhere Oldham's penchant for playful and profane shines through. 'The Mountain Low' has him wishing he could...make love to a mountain (OK, so it's a metaphor for loving a woman who lives in the valley, or something like that), while the aforementioned 'Work Hard/Play Hard' sees Oldham intoning that he likes it "once in the morning and once at night." Serious/melancholy and joking/dirty things are not mutually exclusive, and Will Oldham is the first artist I think of when this dichotomy comes up. As Oldham sings on a song from I See A Darkness, "death to everyone is gonna come/and it makes hosing much more fun." I think you can probably figure out what 'hosing' means.
Like all of his albums, it will take you two spins or so to get into Viva Last Blues. I wasn't an immediate convert to I See A Darkness either. However, if you persevere, you will find in any of Oldham's music a rich and rewarding listen that provides future favorite songs of your's, including the flooring majesties 'New Partner' and 'I See A Darkness', the latter of which Johnny Cash covered. Anyway, Viva Last Blues is a classic, if not essential, Oldham release that everyone should hear.