2. Viva Last Blues (1995)
Has there ever been a greater leap forward in such a short period of time than the one between Days in the Wake and Oldham’s third album and first masterpiece, Viva Last Blues? Even the Beatles needed Help! to get from Beatles for Sale to Rubber Soul. On Viva, Oldham teams with Steve Albini, who had just completed recording Nirvana’s In Utero, one of the most polarizing albums of all time. Unlike that album, where Albini indulged in and encouraged Cobain’s most brutish, noisy tendencies, here the producer achieves a clean, bright, yet never overly-polished sound that finally allows Oldham’s songwriting to blossom. It’s not all that different from what Albini achieved on the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, injecting white noise between each instrument and voice to highlight the care put into these compositions, without sacrificing a shred of authenticity.
And as if he was afraid of being drowned out by all the new instruments, Oldham’s vocal performance is a revelation, particularly on the opener “More Brother Rides” where his voice is loud and snarling yet technically impeccable. Someone forgot to tell him that vibrato is supposed to be beautiful.
Throughout Viva Last Blues, Oldham’s ever-strange lyricism is only complimented by the music’s accessibility, particularly on the weird sexual conquests of “The Mountain Low” and “Work Hard / Play Hard.” All Viva’s missing is an overarching historical theme and it could’ve easily become as iconic and important to the modern hipster as “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”
Viva Last Blues also features the best song Oldham’s ever written, “New Partner.” Here all of his signatures are on display, from the wild naturalism to the crippling guilt, yet it’s all anchored to an ascertainable narrative about lost love and one hell of a melody. It may lack the epic sprawl and transcendental concerns of some of his other work (including the #1 album) but Oldham never made a record so inviting and easy to love.