One of the delights of following Will Oldham’s long and exhaustively prolific career is the sense that you’re never quite sure what he’s going to do next. The man has recorded as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, his own name and, for the majority of the last 20 years, as Bonnie Prince Billy.
It’s this moniker that Singer’s Grave A Sea Of Tongues comes to us under and it should come as no surprise to seasoned Oldham watchers that he’s once again dug into his own extensive back catalogue. Ten years ago, he re-recorded some Palace songs under the BPB name and last year he gave old songs like I See A Darkness a bit of a makeover. This time round, he’s decided to revisit the 2011 album Wolfroy Goes To Town, recasting the spectral, fragile arrangements of that record into something a bit more upbeat.
Only slightly more upbeat, mind. The general tone of Singers Grave, while not being as dirge-like as some of Oldham’s previous material, is still relaxed and laid-back with the main difference being in how the songs sound more fleshed-out with a full band behind them. Quality-wise though, the results are mixed: those who prefer the dark, raw quality inherent in much of Oldham’s material may well find themselves left cold by the more polished sound of Singer’s Grave.
This isn’t a track-by-track retread of Wolfroy though: there are seven tracks from that album (some with new titles), two B-sides and two brand new tracks, and most of the entertainment on first listen lies in how well Oldham has transformed these sad, frail songs into brand new beasts. We Are Unhappy, probably the bleakest lyrical moment on the album, is reincarnated as a twangy banjo-accompanied stroll, which effectively highlights the despair of the narrator even more sufficiently.
Similarly, New Whaling (renamed for Singer’s Grave… as So Far And Here We Are) is almost a totally different song, the funeral pace of the original swapped for a driving, radio-friendly, riff-laden production – it’s almost grating at first if you’d previously fallen in love with New Whaling’s ghostly atmospherics, but it works equally well once you’re used to the new sound. Best of all is Quail And Dumplings, reborn as a country-ish stomp which still manages to be brooding and reflective.
Not everything works so well though. Angel Olsen‘s backing vocals are badly missing – Olsen was one of the highlights of Wolfroy, her distinctive voice balancing out Oldham’s doleful baritone beautifully. For Singer’s Grave, Oldham has employed gospel singers The McCrary Sisters to replace her, and while their harmonies are undeniably beautiful, it all sounds a bit too slick and polished to be truly affecting. Old Match (a retitled version of Wolfy’s No Match) sounds sugary and over-produced with the McCrary’s vocals almost overpowering Oldham, but Whipped (the B-side to It’s Time To Be Clear) fares far better, with the Sister’s vocals nicely framing his dryly funny lyrics about a henpecked husband.
Ironically enough, given the nature of the project, the best two tracks are the new ones: the beautiful and sparse New Black Rich (Tusks) is a gorgeous return to the more fragile arrangements that Oldham is better known for, while Sailor’s Grave A Sea Of Sheep is an elegiac ballad which could sum up the album, with its closing lines of “It’s ok, this is done, let it be so/ And now you can let me go” almost sounding like his own old material singing back to him.
It’s an intriguing experiment which may not always work, and will probably only appeal to Oldham completists, but makes for a pleasant enough interlude while waiting for the next ‘official’ Bonnie Prince Billy release.