He has an interesting head, does Will Oldham, aka the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. Both outside – a bulging bald crown surrounded by burgeoning red hairs that stream down around his chin and probably beyond – and inside. Yes, he has a tricky mind. Elusive even.
Maybe you thought you knew him back in the 90s when he played a part in inventing “alt-country”, got produced by Steve Albini and howled cryptic, mystic lyrics as divorced from the cloying sheen of late 20th century life as a lonely wandering woodsman.
Maybe you were surprised when he softened his sound and yet turned in the no less haunting Master and Everyone in 2004, all sparse guitar melodies, muffled foot tapping and quietly devastating lyrics.
And perhaps you raised an eyebrow when you saw him take the lead in mellow midlife crisis movie Old Joy, or appear in an episode of R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet series, or indeed cover Kelly’s songs as if they were the forgotten scrawlings of some revered 30s bluesman.
Whatever he’s done it’s always been very interesting, very Oldham. That’s until now. Beware, like last year’s Lie Down in the Light, finds Oldham with a big band and jaunty arrangements. Pedal steel twangs, drums rattle along, backing singers coo and the man himself emotes like the best of them, his voice clear and direct.
If that’s what you’re after in your alt-country then you can swing back in your rocking chair and relax. But for me it seems the Bonnie ‘Prince’ has lost his weirdness, his edge, and that is a bad thing. Sure there are tracks like the stumbling and stripped down There is Something I Have to Say that evoke the otherworldly monk of yore, but then it’s straight back into another rollicking number that melds gospel, folk and country into one strangely dissatisfying whole.
The ever-present harmonies lend an unwelcome sheen, the sax swaggers in and out with impunity, and the cohesive, enveloping mood of his previous oeuvre has disappeared. But, despite some typically downbeat lyrics, it sounds like Oldham is having too much fun to care.
Words: Adam Bambury