Monday, June 02, 2008

New Harmony

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Lie Down In The Light (Domino, 2008)

There’s a satisfying irony in the observation that Will Oldham is at once a great contrarian and also one of the most consistent and dependable songwriters currently at work. A lot of adjectives one might not usually associate with Oldham have been deployed in the service of ‘Lie Down In The Light’ – various reviewers have described it as enjoyable, delicate, delightful – even charming for heaven’s sake! If Oldham frequently seems keen on antagonising his admirers, what better way to do it than for the old misanthrope to turn on the charm!

There’s an element of truth in this, even if it only paints an incomplete picture. ‘Lie Down In The Light’ is a soft and ruminative record, perhaps appearing slight on first listen. It’s also Oldham’s most richly arranged record, and perhaps his most musically conventional, certainly closest in spirit to ‘Greatest Palace Music’, where he reworked some of the highlights of his back catalogue in deceptively jaunty styles.

‘Lie Down In The Light’ is also a good deal less ragged than anything else in the Oldham back catalogue. It is frequently very pretty, characterised by the keyboard textures of Lambchop’s Tony Crow, some subtly effective percussion, and the occasional but wonderfully unexpected flourishes of string and woodwind instruments. Dennis Solee’s Clarinet adds a wistful finish to the marvellous ‘For Every Field There’s A Mole’, and the opening ‘Easy Does It’ has an Appalachian lightness of touch aided by pedal steel and fiddle. Oldham’s voice is, for the most part, much smoother and less unhinged than it was on his earliest records.

Thematically, it might be possible to argue that ‘Lie Down In The Light’ is more compassionate, sensitive and humane than the stereotyped view of Oldham as a dark, possibly brutal wilderness poet. The lovely, engaging ‘Where Is The Puzzle’ seems like a straightforward love song, with Oldham claiming that ‘bliss comes with a conclusion’ and that ‘I want only to sing you’. His counselling to ‘keep your loved ones near’ also seems to suggest a kinder spirit at work. However, look beyond that line and, even in the same song (the sepia-tinted ‘Other’s Gain’ – is the apostrophe positioned on the wrong side of the s there?), there’s a more arcane and detached wisdom at play (‘if you want to keep ahead, keep eye on other’s gain’).

A big part in the process of the softening of Oldham’s rougher edges has been his recent tendency to employ female vocalists to provide some sort of harmonic and thematic counterpoint. This is particularly interesting given that his songs have traditionally been defiantly masculine in tone and approach. It’s almost as if he’s self-consciously heralding this approach when he confidently pronounces ‘New harmony on an awesome scale’ on ‘Missing One’. Ashley Webber, part of the extended family of musicians associated with Black Mountain, may be the most effective of these guest vocalists to date. Her voice is more versatile than that of Dawn McCarthy, Oldham’s foil on his previous full-length ‘The Letting Go’. ‘Lie Down In The Light’ is both more approachable and more multi-faceted than that album.

Webber’s vocal on ‘So Everyone’ helps elevate it into one of the best songs Oldham has penned since ‘I See A Darkness’. The song is characteristically mysterious, with a chorus that seems to call for a most explicit public declaration of love. Once again, it demonstrates Oldham’s capacity to make the unsubtle strikingly beautiful, rather than unthinkingly provocative.

If there is a unifying concept behind ‘Lie Down In The Light’, it seems that Oldham is probing at the psychology of physical intimacy, with a particular emphasis on dependency. The concluding ‘I’ll Be Glad’, with its gospel-tinged vocal chorus, is perhaps the most striking example of this, with Oldham pledging to follow wherever his lover leads him.

I’m not sure whether it’s apposite or misleading that ‘Lie Down In The Light’ is bookended by its two lightest, jauntiest tracks. Perhaps this conceals a greater level of mystery beneath the surface, or perhaps it rightly underlines the playfulness at the core of Oldham’s recent work. Either way, ‘Lie Down In The Light’ is a beautiful record that gradually unfolds with every listen, revealing further layers of intricacy and intrigue.

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