April 29, 2009
Quirky indie-Appalachian warbler Will Oldham recently unveiled his twelfth release under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The new record, entitled Beware, picks up on the playful country embellishments of last year’s Lie Down In The Light, but it almost takes a few steps backwards conceptually.
While he has made no qualms about his current love affair with traditional country and folk music, Will Oldham teeters a bit too close to the edge at times on Beware. Whereas last year’s exceptional Lie Down In The Light showcased this new infatuation honestly and effectively, Beware borders on the exaggerated at times, with country arrangements that are at times too playful and over-the-top. Songs like “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” feature high-flying fiddles and an almost faux Gospel choir that tend to take away from Oldham’s otherwise poignant and intelligent lyrics.
Speaking of his lyricism, Beware at times takes a few steps backwards to the older days of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s catalog. The jovial country romps are occasionally countered with darker subject matters and non-typical country self-loathing, which is interesting in its own right, but can also detract from the cohesiveness of the album.
Perhaps the biggest complaint with Beware is the same issue that Oldham has subjected himself to during his tenure as Bonnie “Prince” Billy—Oldham rarely ever makes a record with the same people twice. The stripped-down mastery of previous releases such as I See A Darkenss and Superwolf presented an effective medium for Oldham to showcase his lush songwriting, and last year’s “Lie Down In The Light” perfected his new obsession with lofty traditional music, thanks in part to the beautiful female harmonies of Ashley Webber. On Beware, Oldham has yet again surrounded himself with a new cast of musicians, which certainly adds new elements to his music, while simultaneously detracting from any sense of surrounding consistency.
But then again, this is part of the mystique and charm of Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The fact that Oldham can be consistently prolific, no matter the surrounding cast or their familiarity and chemistry with him, is utterly astounding. It’s not nearly as bad as it sounds though; Beware is still classic Bonnie “Prince” Billy in many ways. The lyrics are often self-reflecting and desperately internal, as Oldham seems to sing increasingly about his lonely position as the perpetual harbinger of indie-folk music. It is a weight that Oldham has grown to appreciate, or at least accept as permanently his own.
Key tracks include the whimsical “I Am Goodbye”, and the somber “Heart’s Arms”. The latter of which finds Oldham vulnerably asking, “Why don’t you write me anymore?/Have you found something as good just next door?” Oldham has really begun to master his song variety, seamlessly balancing upbeat pop-type songs with his more introspective slower ones.
The truth is that at the end of the day Will Oldham is still arguably the best contemporary indie-folk songwriter around, so even if Beware isn’t as complete as some of his previous releases, it is still good. Oldham has built a career around being unpredictable, and it is this youthful spontaneity that keeps the 38-year-old so relevant today.