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DAILY RECORD: Bonnie "Prince" Billy

Posted by: Necci – Oct 18, 2011

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Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Wolfroy Goes To Town (Drag City Records)

At this point, the arrival of a new Will Oldham album will likely prove as surprising as the content within – which is to say, not really very surprising at all. His two-decade career has shown a steady aesthetic evolution, but one that's as carefully crafted and deliberate as the music itself. From the hoarse vocals and off-the-cuff arrangements of his earliest work as Palace, to the lugubrious dirges of Bonnie “Prince” Billy's better albums, to the spectral folk of his more recent work under that same moniker, he has crafted an approach that seems to reverse engineer the course of American popular music. Taking rougher, more rock-oriented instrumentation as an early starting point, he moved backwards through Laurel Canyon folk rock, polished Nashville countrypolitan arrangements, even bluegrass – all loping towards something more fundamental, some crux where all the elemental components of the music with which we are currently familiar first became acquainted. Were this the explicitly stated goal of the project, it wouldn't likely be as successful as it has been. But rather than some academic review of Americana, Oldham has approached its development as intuitively as it occurred in the first place, exploring a course defined as much by its deviations and outliers as by any sort of discernable trajectory.

That Wolfroy Goes To Town doesn't ally itself with any specific set of influences is very much to its credit. Its re-imagining of that indistinct point in the recent past where British Isles folk music took root within Appalachia's confines and emerged as a whole new entity chains itself to no narrow historicity, instead favoring an approach in which the atomized influences are reconfigured into something familiar yet disconcerting, something that could as easily have been written centuries ago as in the present. It's not an unprecedented approach, and many of the artists who have operated in a similar fashion find their work reflected on this album - one could look to Willie Nelson's work on Red Headed Stranger or Liege And Leaf-era Fairport Convention for some fairly direct antecedents.

The album is characterized by a tone that's subdued even by the standards of Will Oldham's back catalog, but this understated quality is so artfully executed it becomes readily apparent that Oldham has become comfortable enough with his aesthetic that the strictures of a relatively standard tone take a back seat to the ability to work within its various nuances. There are common elements that are found in all the songs – gentle guitar and multi-part harmonies – that lend the songs a casual air, as if the performers were simply running through a few familiar old standards without regard to the recording process. This isn't to suggest that the proceedings are at all sloppy, but there's a loose informality that imbues the songs with an inviting warmth. The backing band remains largely unobtrusive, but the moments when they make their presence felt are a testament to their versatility. For evidence of this, one need only look to the subdued country inflections of “No Match,” the ornate vocal harmonies during the coda of “Cows,” or any of the points in which backing vocalist Angel Olson steps into a more prominent role, displaying a vocal range that can approximate Shirley Collins as easily as Barbara Dane.

The album comes off like a warped rustic devotional music, but one that's unsure of the object of its devotion. The somewhat conflicted worldview Oldham puts forth is one of higher powers who may or may not exist and, if they do, may or may not have humanity's best interests at heart. On one hand, there are lines like “Stop all the moaning and bemoaning of fate / God isn't listening or else it's too late,” and on the other, he sings “Good God guides us / Bad God leaves us / Good seed hides us / Good Earth gives.” It's a vision that teeters between a Gnostic vision of an existence predicated upon an irrational divinity and an agnostic vision of an existence in which we are irrational of our own volition. It's ambiguous territory that Oldham has mined extensively, but rarely expressed so bluntly.

And for all the subtle elements of his oeuvre, Oldham's penchant for a blunt lyric, for some incongruous mood shift, or for casual profanity survives intact on his newest. For many artists, it might come across forced to open a song as austere and stately as “New Tibet” with a line like “As boys we fucked each other / As men, we lie and smile,” but in Oldham's hands the line becomes a resigned paean to the way that curiosity and exploration can be battered into duplicitous formality. On a less dour note, “Quail and Dumplings,” a hopeful country shuffle in which the narrator dreams of a future where his hunger and poverty might abate, contrasts the anachronistic phrasing and passive longing of lines like “Someday there's gonna be quail and dumplings for we” with Angel Olson's more active admonition of “Fuck birds in the bushes / Let's take 'em in the bed.” It's a world where life's small tragedies play themselves out on a scale that's as large as one's existence, where standing in defiance of defeat may seem like a small effort, but it's one that affirms life in a universe that seems largely apathetic to humanity's desire to have life affirmed.

The irony is that Will Oldham, in smoothing some of the rougher edges from his music, has created an album that's less immediately accessible than much of his earlier work. While Wolfroy Goes To Town is well-recorded, competently performed, and devoid of the more heavy-handed gloom that characterizes many of his better-known releases, it also lacks songs that immediately reach out and grab a listener. This isn't a negative criticism necessarily, as the material possesses a strength that lies in its interdependence – individual songs are far harder to appreciate when removed from the context of the surrounding pieces. Taken as a whole, each listen reveals further layers to the album, and after a while its inconsistencies and incongruities actually begin to work together, reinforcing each other and offering the impression of a group of individuals hunkered down together, bruised by a capricious universe but finding solace in a song.

By Graham Scala

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