William Elliott Whitmore
Will Whitmore has been performing and making albums since the turn of the millennium, always faithful to his own idea of what makes a song that sticks. He writes songs that are simple and devastating. His voice, as it did even when he was in his 20s, sounds not just older than his years, but as though it comes from a different century.
Kilonova, out Sept. 7, is an album of cover songs, a common mid-career choice for commercial artists. The only thing more dire is every artist’s inevitable Christmas record. But while Whitmore plays music for a living, his music has always seemed like an act of defiance to the calculated products of the music business. Kilonova is no exception.
While most of these songs were commercial hits in the past — Johnny Cash’s songs “Busted” and “Five Feet High and Rising,” especially — Whitmore strips away studio artifice and presents the songs that he grew up listening to in his gravelly raw baritone, with no more support than is absolutely necessary.
The original version of album opener, the Magnetic Fields’ “Fear of Trains,” is dense and low-fi, with drum machine beats and synth bass. As Whitmore takes it on with just his voice and guitar, it foregrounds the devastating lyrics and adds a hint of country twang. It’s arguably the definitive version of the song, bringing the story of a Blackfoot Indian woman’s hard life into sharp focus.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” has some of Bill Withers’ soul but Whitmore’s voice is rough where Withers’ is smooth. The next song on the album, Red Meat’s “One Glass At A Time,” seems to rhyme with “Sunshine” — both songs are about yearning for an absent lover. Whitmore’s version is emotionally desolate in the great country tradition.
The album closer, “Bat Chain Puller” by Captain Beefheart, seems at first the odd song out in this collection — but it fits brilliantly. Whitmore sounds like Captain Beefheart, but takes the song into droney, krautrock territory. The original is wonky and jerky, Whitmore’s is groovy and meditative, even as he finds his harshest vocal tone to deliver Beefheart’s surreal tale of cruelty to animals. And it contains a lyrical wormhole back to the album opener “Fear of Trains”: “This train with grey tubes that houses people’s thoughts.”
Paradoxically, Kilonova may be more personal than Whitmore’s albums of original songs. This collection is William Elliott Whitmore exposing his musical foundations for all to see. Each song is delivered with obvious affection, but it’s more than homage: it finds something new and unexpected in well-worn classics.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 249.