A descendant of slavery, Holley also taps into the intergenerational lineage of black trauma, dramatizing an exchange between an enslaved person and their enslaver on “Better Get That Crop in Soon,” set against a funky backdrop of kalimba and marimba rhythms. (Slavery is a recurring theme both in Holley’s sculptures, which have depicted slave ships, and in her music, which includes the 18-minute epic “I Snuck Off the Slave Ship.”) By sequencing the song along with the more explicitly autobiographical “Mount Meigs,” draws a parallel between his own experience and that of his ancestors, all victims of state-sanctioned brutality.
Made in collaboration with producer Jacknife Lee, who shares a writing credit on each song, oh me oh my manages to be Holley’s most accessible and ambitious album yet. Full-bodied and panoramic arrangements are a great starting point. Holley began a music career in earnest at age 60; the first releases of him, 2012 just before the music and 2013 Keep track of it, contained quirky and outlandish arrangements that mostly served as a malleable canvas for the artist’s free-associative storytelling. About the 2018 expansion MYTHthe music took on a more dreamlike jazz texture, with tracks that unfolded over the course of seven minutes or more.
In oh me oh my, the songs have a tighter structure, while the musical backgrounds take on a cinematic life of their own: the sizzling orchestral funk of “Earth Will Be There”, the ambient drift of “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears”, the frenetic and vibrant polyrhythms of “Better Get That Crop in Soon.” We even have traces of West African pop on “If We Get Lost They Will Find Us,” which features the harsh wail of Malian vocalist Rokia Koné. Poet Moor Mother melds personal and cosmic stories into one on “I Am a Part of the Wonder” and “Earth Will Be There,” which place Holley’s richly detailed reminiscences in communion with free jazz, electro-funk and the long, rich tradition of Afrofuturism.
oh me oh my it’s the rare album that can be described as “star-studded” and virtually devoid of mainstream appeal. Lee, who has produced records for the likes of REM and U2, garners some big-name contributors, and some will look askance at the intrusion of prominent guests into Holley’s work. What’s surprising is that these guests rarely steal the spotlight (Koné is the exception), content to serve as part of Holley’s mosaic of outsider art. Stipe contributes a soulful mantra to the title track; Sharon Van Etten brings a world-weary longing to “None of Us Will Have But a Little While,” which yields Holley’s most melodic singing to date. And Bon Iver’s cool, multi-layered falsetto is instantly recognizable on “Kindness Will Follow Your Tears.” It is the first time that conventional hooks have been present in Holley’s music.