Lonnie Holley: Oh Me, Oh My [Album Review]

Lonnie Holley
Oh Me, Oh My
Jagjaguwar [2023]

Long before Lonnie Holley made any music, he had been discovered as a visual artist and sculptor, initially making sandstone carvings from discarded stone linings used for industrial molds, but later constructing found-art sculptures from junkyard detritus and things discarded by our consumer-driven culture. Holley’s childhood as an African American born in Alabama’s Jim Crow 1950’s, the 7th child of 27, is a tale of tragedy of Dickensian proportion, with only a 7th grade education, and time spent in the notoriously brutal Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children in Mount Meigs, make him an unlikely candidate to have his self-taught art shown at the Metropolitan Museum, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the National Gallery, and on permanent display at the United Nations. You can see examples of his sculptures at lonnieholley.com, and some of his painted works can be seen in the music video for “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears,” which features Bon Iver.

Like his found-art sculptures, many of Holley’s musical pieces develop from spontaneous, improvisational elements, many of his earliest works involved vocalizations over rudimentary electronic keyboard sounds. Here on his fifth album, and third with Jagjaguwar, Holley collaborates closely with his producer Jacknife Lee, and a variety of alternative rock and avant-garde musicians, to harness his experimental, atmospheric music into pieces that come as close to mainstream pop music listening tastes as possible without compromising Holley’s unique identity. Of course, Lee has worked in electronic music in the past, as well as working on pop/rock works with R.E.M., U2, Modest Mouse, and many more.

Of course, the collaborations with the likes of R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, get a lot of the early attention. On the album’s quiet, hymn-like title track, Stipe leans into the Gospel shouts and moans of Holley, singing “Oh me, oh my.” But Holley’s lyric invites us to “go as deep as you can,” because the deeper we go/the more chances there are/for us to understand.” And remembering the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from his childhood, he concludes that “as we grow and we learn each other more and more and more/we learn how precious life is,” and we see the truth that it is “oh us.” Similarly, the trance-like, ethereal, ambient, leaning “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears,” acknowledges suffering but finds a way to respond not with anger or resentment but with gentleness and grace, Bon Iver’s voice bringing a softer, more melodic sensibility to Holley’s rougher vocal.

Sharon Van Etten’s voice provides a similar airy backdrop for Holley on “None of Us Have But a Little While,” while he talk/sings his awareness pf life’s brevity, with light orchestration as the song develops. “If We Get Lost They Will Find Us” benefits from the vocal additions of West African singer Rokia Kone, the Mali vocalist who produced her debut album, “Bamanan,” as well with the help of Lee. But two of the more up-tempo Afro-jazz tracks bring a more percussive approach from Lee, no doubt inspired by poet/vocalist Moor Mother on “I’m a Part of the Wonder” and “Earth Will Be There,” the second with Holley’s assurance that it will “catch us when we fall.”

But even without the help of other voices, Holley and Lee produce memorable avant-garde musical statements of note. In “Mount Meigs” Lee matches Holley’s memories of that violent “School for Negro Children” with an aggressive, drum set backing, and plenty of noise to match the spoken word storyline. Similarly, a reflection on the risks of sharecropping, “Better Get That Crop in Soon,” is set to a funky beat, a positive vibe that goes against the grain of a threatening reality. For all the pain and darkness that Holley’s life has had to overcome, one lyrical thread that shows up repeatedly is a reverence for the memory of his mother and grandmother, who’s spirits have provided comfort as he has held them close in his thoughts about life and what ultimately matters in this cruel world.

In the ambient, electronic backing of “I Can’t Hush,” and elsewhere in Holley’s work some have heard comparisons to Brian Eno’s airier works, and certainly in the processed vocals of the closing “Future Children” some will hear a connection with the spoken-word electronica of Laurie Anderson. But Holley’s voice, with deep resonance from his Alabama up bringing and bluesy musicality is unlike many to whom his work might be compared. Much like his found-art scavenger sculptures, and his modern impressionistic paintings, Holley carves his own unique, artful way, bring an unexpected positivity to a world-full of tragic life experiences that unfold straight-forwardly on the podcast, “Unreformed: The Story of the Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children.” The music of Oh Me, Oh My puts that story in an artful musical context.

“Oh Me, Oh My” / “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears” / “If We Get Lost They Will Find Us”

Bon Iver / Rokia Kone / Gil Scott-Heron

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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