If you’ve never heard the name Will Oldham before, don’t be so sure you’ve never heard any of the man’s music (or seen a movie he has appeared in). Johnny Cash covered his classic “I See A Darkness” on American III and Oldham even appears in an installment of Trapped in the Closet. The 38 year old Louisville, Kentucky native has released material under so many different monikers that his birth name merely exists as a blurred reminder of what lies beneath it all. The names Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, and Bonnie Billy all remain as distant labels for Oldham’s back catalog, but of course, his most prolific and prominent persona is the slow-swooning, heartbroken folkie, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.
Oldham spent his early years under the Bonnie handle exploring the depths of darkness left in the wake of a broken heart. Pairing his own interwoven vocals with sparse, somber instrumentation, works like I See A Darkness and Master and Everyone stand as relics of depressive, lovesick introspection. Though 2006’s impossibly lush and spacious The Letting Go didn’t hint at an eventual turn to a more country based sound, 2008’s Lie Down in the Light brought forth the twang. Though billed by Oldham himself as the smaller record of the two (Beware would be the bigger one), the album introduced a new side that wasn’t going anywhere for a while. The record definitely seems to be a sister to its predecessor, but it doesn’t come across as immediately more ambitious. The country, however, is still omnipresent. Gram Parsons may be long gone, but with the latest offering from Mr. Oldham, he may be living on through Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
For Oldham, an all out country approach certainly shakes off some of the initial gloom found on earlier efforts, incorporating more up-tempo, major key tunes with often bizarrely comical lyrics. Take for instance, the first lines from album-opener “Beware Your Only Friend”: “I want to be/your only friend/(is that scary?).” As a fiddle brushes against sharp acoustic strumming, Emmylou Harris-style vocals respond humorously to Oldham’s deranged Oedipal urges. At first glance, the song just sounds like another piece of ear candy from the bearded folkie, but a close listen to the interplay between backup and lead vocals reveals a creepily funny song, explicitly warning a certain someone against Oldham’s obsessive tendencies. This type of humor isn’t a surprise either, coming from the guy who once opened a track with the line “If I could fuck a mountain, lord, I would fuck a mountain” and later pleaded for public fellatio under the guise of a love duet.
So begins Beware, with appropriate caution to all: Will Oldham is a weird dude, and he’s warning you in case you didn’t already know, though he doesn’t really get any more bizarre as the album progresses through, and certain songs do maintain a serious tone. What follows is a solid grouping of tunes that seem to move through 60’s folk-country and contemporary alt-folk checklists–all in keeping with his signature Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy character. The record pays as much homage to country music as it revitalizes the genre. Of course, there are a variety of song types. While some tracks are still more upbeat than usual, there are definitely enough slower mellower tunes here to cater to fans who still See A Darkness. Pedal steels, fiddles, electric guitars, hammers, and pulls come and go while Oldham complains and philosophizes on love, his own life, death, and all that falls between. Warm layered vocals create atmospheres that explode and then calm down and then lament over themselves.
Oldham appears to have reached comfortable ground, but continues to bring new sounds into his repertoire, perpetuating his own evolution. The Prince has no trouble wearing his influences on his sleeves, either. Hell, even the album cover harkens back to Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. Though I wouldn’t associate that particular Neil Young album with this record, Young’s influence is present, along with dozens of others. While some songs stick to a simple country aesthetic (“You Don’t Love Me”), others delve into the experimental (the delay rich “Heart’s Arms”). Oldham proves here, that he is as much of a Jeff Tweedy as he is a Flying Burrito Brother, but that in the end, he is none other than Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. His new cowboy hat doesn’t cast an impenetrable shadow over the Billy of old, but rather brings forth a welcomed kick to his perfected sound. With the range of song selections, you’ll be able to cry while you simultaneously square dance at the hoedown.
Oldham has yet to distance himself from heartbreak, but really, why should he? He has surveyed every angle of love’s unfortunate backlash, and in doing so has found that sticking to one melancholic sound isn’t necessary in getting the point across. With Beware, Oldham continues to contrast himself with himself. A look back at all of his music reveals a great deal of diversity in the genre of folk. Beware reminds us that, as always, “Love Hurts”, but that some southern twang certainly makes it a whole lot easier to swallow.
also available at Consequence of Sound