It’s difficult, in this easy-access internet age, to explain exactly how important Peel Sessions were. Music was a lot more difficult to come by, for starters, and platforms such as SoundCloud didn’t exist – once something was broadcast you either caught it on a C60 or it slipped away into the ether, like a transmission gradually scrambled by bad weather.
So an album such as ‘Pond Scum’ is a fascinating window into a time that has been washed away. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy was a favourite of John Peel, his darkly humorous writing tickling the veteran broadcaster during what would be his final decade on the airwaves. The Peel Sessions enclosed within are, largely, how many fans would have been introduced to his music: sparse, intense, mysterious vignettes that made a tremendous impact and then pass silently by.
Collating a decade’s worth of performances, ‘Pond Scum’ starts at the end and works its way back towards the beginning. A curious move, but it means that the album explodes into life with the stunning one-two of ‘(I Was Drunk At The) Pulpit’ and ‘Death To Everyone’. If the original recordings could be regarded as dark then these are positively pitch black, with the Bonnie ‘Prince’ joined only by David Heumann for jagged, plaintive, emotionally incisive performances.
‘Arise, Therefore’ contains some ferocious Old Testament wisdom, while ‘Jolly Five’ and ‘Jolly One’ remain thoroughly cryptic. Despite being a backwards glimpsed view of the songwriter’s Radio 1 sessions, ‘Pond Scum’ harbours a real sense of unity – this isn’t quite devolution, so much as a slightly different, rather unexpected ramble around a familiar path.
‘Trudy Dies’ is a sombre evocation of grief, while ‘The Cross’ is a typically idiosyncratic take on the Prince classic – honing in on the religious imagery, it mingles faith and desire to quite stunning effect.
‘Pond Scum’ may be a compilation of sorts, but it’s wonderfully effective as a primer for Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s wider catalogue. Some familiar touchstones are present, alongside no small degree of rarities, while the minimal palette allows unimagined hues to leak out of each song. Peel Sessions were – at the time – an all too rare place for left field artists to be heard on British radio, expressing themselves on their own terms. It’s heartening to hear, after all these years, that time has not diminished the intensity of those performances.
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