Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Contrarian Unmasked

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Beware (Domino, 2009)

The cover is deep black, with a remarkably striking portrait of the artist in white silhouette. The typography hints at Neil Young’s iconic ‘Tonight’s The Night’ sleeve. Then there are the song titles – ‘Death Final’, ‘You Are Lost’, ‘I Am Goodbye’. At first glance, ‘Beware’ looks like a more natural successor to the classic ‘I See A Darkness’ than anything Will Oldham has recorded in the intervening years.

This being the work of a prolific man with many guises, who enjoys confusing and confounding his admirers as much as his detractors, it predictably isn’t quite that simple. ‘Beware’ is another step on Oldham’s strange, questioning journey, and another refusal simply to repeat former glories. What is for sure, at least to these ears, is that this is his best, most confident work since the aforementioned first outing under the BPB name.

On his most recent albums, Oldham has been experimenting with the effects of working with different vocalists. In fact, it’s been surprising how well his characteristically wayward voice has blended with his female collaborators. On ‘Beware’ he has assembled something approaching a mass choir. Sometimes they provide swelling background harmonies, whilst at others they work (very effectively) in response to his calls. The result is what might be Oldham’s most expansive and extravagant album to date – a form of imposing Nashville soul that is both commanding and compelling.

If anything, ‘Beware’ is closest in sound to ‘Greatest Palace Music’, the album on which Oldham controversially covered himself in Nashville syrup. I’m not sure that ‘Beware’ is destined to follow that album’s unfair dismissal though. The songs here are simply too good to be ignored. Also, the notion that this represents some new ‘positive’ or ‘happy’ Oldham is far too schematic an interpretation. Whilst ‘Beware’ is certainly full of physical humour and even occasionally some warmth, its overall emotional landscape is a good deal more slippery and complex.

So, whilst ‘I Don’t Belong To Anyone’ examines the joys of fun-loving bachelor status (a far more enjoyable song than Morrissey’s surly ‘I’m OK By Myself’) and ‘You Don’t Love Me’ explores the virtues of non-committal lovemaking, there’s also the devastatingly poignant ‘Heart’s Arms’ and the mysterious, troubling ‘You Are Lost’. The former is as expressive and eloquent a break-up song as I’ve heard (‘I open this awful machine to nothing, where once your intimacies came pounding’) and the latter seems to recognise the need for a free spirited partner to escape the restrictions imposed by its protagonist (‘if you listen to me you are lost’).

What emerges clearly from this selection of songs is the tremendous human insight of Oldham’s writing. One of Oldham’s older songs ‘One With The Birds’, introduced the tricky concept of being ‘inhuman’ and perhaps not being as distant from animals as we might wish. ‘Beware’ seems to incorporate some of our less altruistic desires into a more intricate and complete portrait of being human. Sometimes this lies in directly confronting the more unpalatable sides of human nature, from selfishness and greed to controlling impulses. Sometimes it’s a recognition of the warmth that can be found in tiny physical details (the ‘belly laughs’ or ‘the way my stomach jiggles’). At other times, it’s even rueful or self deprecating (‘you say my kisses don’t even raise a six on a scale of one to ten’). It’s a richly nuanced depiction of human life that refuses to conform to anything as simplistic as a positive or negative viewpoint.

Elsewhere, he mischievously undercuts the tropes of the American blues tradition (‘I know everyone knows the trouble I have seen/That’s the thing about trouble you can love’) and seems preoccupied with the concept of work, particularly in relationships. At the moment, ‘My Life’s Work’ is striking me as one of his most powerful and strident songs to date.

Musically, the album is as confident and audacious a work as any in Oldham’s illustrious canon. The first interjection of the choir on ‘Beware Your Only Friend’ immediately betrays the album’s wry humour (‘I want to be your only friend’, sings Oldham, ‘does that sound scary?’ responds the choir). Throughout the album, backing vocals conspire to add depth and power. The instrumentation is also correspondingly lavish, with plenty of fiddles, flutes, cornets and even the odd saxophone solo. On ‘Heart’s Arms’, Oldham explores the dramatic potential of sudden dynamic contrasts.

Yet ‘Beware’ is also an embrace of country music’s subtleties as well as its potential for luxury. There’s the gentle shuffle of ‘I Don’t Belong To Anyone’ or the more reflective, delicate lilt of ‘Death Final’, both excellent songs. Often the rhythmic foundation comes more from hand percussion than a full drum kit, a neat trick that lends space to the music where it might otherwise have been cluttered. This works particularly well on the extraordinary, dream-like closing track ‘Afraid Ain’t Me’.

There’s also a melodic familiarity to some of the tracks here that somehow manages to be more of a strength than a weakness. Oldham has certainly done this before – with ‘One With The Birds’ having borrowed heavily from Gram Parsons’ ‘Hickory Wind’. Here, ‘Beware Your Only Friend’ reminds me slightly of ‘Octopus’ Garden’, although it’s admittedly hard to imagine Ringo Starr singing these words. More notably perhaps, ‘Without Work, You Have Nothing’ strongly resembles the old Jerome Kern standard ‘The Way You Look Tonight’. These borrowings make the songs sound rooted in history, but Oldham takes these melodies to a wildly different place.

Oldham has never made a bad album as such, but sometimes they’ve seemed either overly conceptual (‘Sings Greatest Palace Music’) or have hidden some depths within considerable subtleties (‘The Letting Go’). ‘Beware’ is an immediate and authoritative statement, but one that seems likely to have a durable quality too. Straightforwardly, for such a contrarian, these are outstanding songs, delivered with a distinctive authorial voice.

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