When a songwriter’s prolificacy creates the volumes that Will Oldham’s has, it can become difficult to draw reference from his catalogue. It often exists as one vast document of his contribution, nuance be damned to the onlooker. With notable exceptions Greatest Palace Music and the Tortoise-backed The Brave and the Bold, Oldham’s shifts in tone and composition are subtle enough to be missed. Take The Letting Go, whose just-barely-affable departure still stitches together the ethereal futility of its predecessors, and with the same resigned musical applique accounted for. It doesn’t diminish the quality at all, but you’re also not finding many Dylan-gone-electric moments throughout Oldham’s career despite his pseudonymous eccentricity. And while we may not ever find such episodes with Oldham, the otherwise Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Beware (March 17/Drag City) is as plugged in (bar Superwolf)as we’ve yet seen him.
That is, Beware is most things that his career is not. It isn’t spare or lonely or drab. It’s full and accompanied and colorful. It’s heavily textured throughout with a small folk symphony–pedal steel, horns, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, accordions, flutes, more–a cacophonous cavalcade to Oldham’s previously more secluded shuffle. And where in the past he commonly utilized a female vocalist, modestly and earnestly drifting underneath and in between his warble, Beware has a bevy of backups, more prominently and confidently placed that ever before. Even Odlham’s trademark quiver seems more even, self-assured and at times almost, well, happy. And all of that makes Beware discernibly louder. Hence, the sweeps of gray have given way to a more colorful experience. But colorful’s not to be confused with cheer.
The opening track, “Beware Your Only Friend,” serves as the most immediate explanation of this. It carries all of the larger elements of the record–heavily composed instrumental, a backing chorus, a louder Bonnie Billy–but the story it tells isn’t cheerful at all. It isn’t safe. It’s the story of a stalker, finally offering a voice to the quiet corner dweller with lascivious and infernal thoughts. As we’ve seen, Oldham’s ostensibly dark perception across his output hasn’t come at the sake of humor. And here, the dark humor persists. “I want to be your only friend,” he exclaims. “Is that scary?” the women respond. Yes. Yes, it is, they find out.
And the album is as much in accord. The lyrics are almost always explicit; it’s the communal musical presentation that’s tongue-in-cheek. In that way, it’s Will Oldham doing his best Garrison Keillor. Beware becomes a more solipsistic Prairie Home Companion. It’s one of Lake Wobegon’s more woebegone denizen narrating his own tale, rather than the observatory ruminations of a more rational omniscient. And so it is that the landscape comes into view for us, not through observation, but through the reaction, subjectivity and internalization of Oldham’s character. He has always done well at landscape pieces–creating an environment with his music. But Beware actually offers a sense of inhabited place.
In “Death Final,” he sings, “In a pit of bodies, I am loved by all. By ham hock, and by handkerchief, by damsel and by dog,” invoking a funeral processional through town where weeping women flutter white linen, natty dogs scamper through the street and remembrance feasts await behind wooded doorways. While a fiddle cries it’s way through the chorus, we realize this isn’t final death at all, but merely a momentary flatline in yet another season that must weathered.
As Beware carries us through this twisted Lake Wobegon, from the stalker opus to the temporary funeral, we see at turns classic Oldham folk, pastoral strings and caricatured country noir (a la Greatest Palace Music). “I Am Goodbye,” proves his more evolved take on the latter, where “like a toy that unwinds,” he renders joy void (and maybe, he thinks, that’s not actually a bad thing). A manic psych-country ballad, “I Am Goodbye” highlights the stronger second of two consistently satisfying record halves. And it is the loudest example of why Beware is most things previous Bonnie “Prince” Billy is not, a microcosm of the record itself. It’s lyrically astute and musically lavish. It’s bold verging on brash. It’s an exclamation, a worthy reference point on an unflagging volume. words/ j crosby
Elsewhere: The New Yorker profile Will Oldham…