Bonnie “Prince” Billy


Rating: 4.5

Label: Drag City

How well do you know your friends? Sure, you share a beer and a laugh and sometimes talk about heartbreak and great sex, but beyond somewhat topical emotions, do you really know your friends? When we are alone in the wee hours of the morning, fears and defeats encircling us like vicious, black dogs, how many friends have the meddle to listen to even those doubts, those horrific terrors that we’re even afraid to admit to ourselves? On his 1999 masterpiece, I See a Darkness, Will Oldham (nee Bonnie “Prince” Billy) sang “I hope that someday buddy/ We have peace in our lives/ Together or apart/ Alone or with our wives.” Who would know such a sentiment would resonate throughout all of his subsequent work, culminating in the very strong Beware?

While last year’s Lie Down in the Light proved that Oldham could pen a tuneful alt-country album, Beware takes that gold sound, soulful violin, the longing of pedal steel and acoustic country, and weaves another strong entry in the Bonnie “Prince” Billy canon. Much like Neil Young’s criminally underrated Hawks and Doves, Beware finds Oldham alternating between full-blooded country tunes and stripped down jaunts about loneliness. Take a look at the album cover: above the stark Yorick skull of Oldham’s bald pate is a font not dissimilar to that used on many Neil Young albums (for greatest resemblance, check out Tonight’s the Night).

Oldham’s muse has been difficult to pin down as he eschews press and peppers his quite serious oeuvre with right-field maneuvers such as covering Mariah Carey and appearing in hip-hop music videos. He even had a starring role in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, a quiet film about miscommunication and lost friendship. Perhaps that role really cuts to the heart of Oldham’s work: the loss of brotherhood and failed relationships that have been killed by fear.

Beware begins with “Beware Your Only Friend,” a playful tune filled with fiddle and sax that sets the stage by stating, “I want to be your only friend.” But such simple proclamations come with a price. “Is that scary?” asks a phalanx of backing singers immediately after, proving such propositions can never be fulfilled in this day and age. Oldham stretches this failure to connect to other relationships: parents to children, lover to lover. “We both flail too much/ To let the other near,” he concludes, marking such close relationships futile. This idea continues with “You Can’t Hurt Me Now.” As Greg Leiscz’s somber pedal steel drifts over this mid-tempo gem, Oldham’s focus turns inward. “The more I feel myself/ The more alone I am,” he sings, the isolationism and fear of self-knowledge almost palpable. On the spare “There is Something I Have to Say,” Oldham asks, “Can we find communion again/ In the bedroom or just as friends?” He is in search of human touch, whether it be that of a lover or a friend, and yet is too terrified to reach out.

But Oldham doesn’t have issue with taking a playful angle on his fear of solitude. The light-hearted instrumentation of “You Don’t Love Me” underplays such serious notions, especially with lines like “You say you like my eyes only/ Or just the way I giggle/ Sometimes you like the smell of me/ Or how my stomach jiggles.” One of Oldham’s best traits is his self-deprecation. Who else would wear hot orange shorts and hump a tractor in a Kanye West video? One of the album’s best moments comes late in the form of the short but sweet “I Am Goodbye.” Almost like a response to the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” Oldham’s take features an ecstatic chorus that cements him as the destroyer of a beautiful relationship. Never before has so much wreckage sounded so joyful.

Beware is an essential album in a career filled with so many excellent albums. Though it is possible nothing will ever scale the same heights as I See a Darkness, Beware presents some of Oldham’s best sides, a consummately American artist though he remains an elusive figure in independent music (he admitted to hating the press in a recent New Yorker interview). But there is no point in denying the power of his songs, insidious little gems that benefit from repeated spins. Maybe someday we will fully understand Oldham and his music, but that is, perhaps, the thing that terrifies him the most.

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