The bald, bearded, and sometimes bawdy troubadour returns. But Bonnie Prince Billy is beautiful on the inside, as every record he’s ever released proves. His latest doesn’t disappoint, with delicate rustic songs of love, sex, and loss.
Earlier in his career, he was firmly aligned in critical circles with the alt-country genre that anyone with a guitar and the vague suggestion of facial hair is usually subjected to. But his recent albums, under whatever guise (plain old Will Oldham, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Palace Brothers) clearly owe more to the folk tradition of this country, rather than any dusty Americana. Complex and innovative string arrangements are to the fore on these songs, evoking Robert Kirby’s arrangements for Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and the like.
What’s more, as always, Oldham sings in such a way that you imagine he’s singing about his angst and hardship inches from your ear: an essential trait of most romantic and fragile singer-songwriters of the past forty years, and one that defined Johnny Cash‘s recordings before he died. Oldham collaborated with Cash on American Recordings III with I See a Darkness.
So he’s an American, making music with a European, Celtic bent, but the album was made in Iceland. And the cover is a photo of a Hawaii beach. Oldham is a true internationalist. But the Icelandic thing is a big deal, mainly because Letting Go’s producer is Valgeir Sigurdsson, the mad genius behind Bjork’s recent work. This influence is felt keenly on The Seedling, a moody and wayward track combining Oldham’s pained lyrics and sad melodies with the oddities of a Bjork record.
Oldham’s previous project, an album with drummer and pal Matt Sweeney, opened up the old boy even more to the joys of collaboration with fun, cutting edge musicians. Here, aside from Sigurdsson, he is backed up by the beautiful vocals of Dawn McCarthy of Faun Fables. Her Beth Orton-esque tones light up this rich album, adding to the depth of feeling already set up by the orchestral arrangements and left-field production.
The first single from the album, Cursed Sleep, is a gorgeous example of everything that is good about the album, with prominent strings and wistful, tragic lines about being “so enslaved by her sweet wonder”, and “in her arms I trembled electric”. We’re also given a dose of Oldham’s reflective and docile take on the blues with Cold and Wet, but the greatest track here is Love Comes To Me. This first track repeats the appeal of Cursed Sleep, but with added simplicity and wonder, and without the knowledge that it’s being pitched commercially as a single. But then again, it’s ridiculous to suggest anything that Oldham does can possibly be said to be ‘pitched commercially’.
Oldham deals with cosmic themes with a music that makes the world seem very small. But happily, he manages to slip in the odd cheeky piece of sexy fun, such as the line in Big Friday when he sings “you sleep with your legs apart every night”. A vignette to make you smile, which is an anomaly on the understated but epic album.