Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy & the Cairo Gang

The Wonder Show of the World

Rating: 3.5/5.0

Label: Drag City Records

Well, if anything is safe to say about Will Oldham by now, it’s that he doesn’t seem much concerned about a straightforward career in the music business. He’s changed his moniker – whether Palace, Palace Songs, Palace Brothers, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Bonny Billy & The Picket Line, or simply Will Oldham – nearly as often as he’s changed his style, which has morphed through the weary and morbid dread of I See a Darkness, the bare-bones folk of Master and Everyone, and the slick Nashville country of Sings Greatest Palace Music, among others, to reach his most recent persona, the slightly tongue-in-cheek, bluegrass-infused Midwesterner behind Beware! and Funtime Comedown. While artists like Ryan Adams have navigated – and artists like Phosphorescent realistically should navigate – these genres less successfully, Oldham’s gift has been his ability to mold the ideas that arise from his bizarre-looking head into subtle but equally bizarre statements that take an album’s length to express, with never any stabs at hit singles or filler.

The Wonder Show of the World finds Oldham teaming up with “The Cairo Gang,” which, according to press photos and the music itself, seems to just mean vocalist/guitarist Emmett Kelly, who harmonizes with layers of Oldham throughout the bulk of the album, though Phil Elverum does make a cameo. The gliding harmonies and acoustic guitar hammer-ons of “Troublesome Houses” that introduce the album don’t bring to mind any of the previously mentioned styles but Oldham feels just as at home with them. The choices of instrumentation are perhaps the most interesting aspect of this album, evident early in the ballad “Teach Me to Bear You.” The song may have been warm and cozy enough for the Cohen-esque acoustic simplicity of Master and Everyone, or could withstand getting woken up as a fiddle-laden romp on Beware!, but here, it’s presented with just bass and two electric guitars, bluesy solos and all. Things remain sparse throughout Wonder Show, with only a few appearances by drums and no extraneous strings, horns or keyboards jumping in.

And just like Sings Greatest Palace Music could have sounded like Top 40 country in the hands of someone else, songs like “Troublesome Houses” and “The Sounds Are Always Begging” could have easily been Jason Mraz or Jack Johnson knock-offs if not laced with the pristine voices of Oldham and Kelly as well as lyrics about fornicating hills, wives chopping up beds and the album’s token creepy sex reference – “The way your box smells on my mustache.” It’s basically what you’d expect from the small, bald, bearded man who so adores singing about his belly. Despite the quirkiness that is expected from Oldham at this point, the “Wonder Show” referenced in the title just may be the life of peace and quiet at home. “I’m not impressed by fields of cane/ Our house is good to me and plain/ Happiness can live here still,” he sings in “With Cornstalks or Among Them,” accepting a life that is as pleasant, spare and just slightly odd as all of the music illustrating it here. Further rebuking younger naiveté and perhaps even turning the corner on his most revered album, Oldham states, “I never thought the sun would rise in the East and set in the West/ I figured I owned just dark skies/ And the darkness fit me best,” in the slow and sunny “Go Folks, Go,” though the true meaning of that verse depends on the particularly ambiguous grammatical placing of its last line.

Assuming you’re not in precisely the right mood for it, Wonder Show drags a bit towards the end like many Oldham collections do, particularly with “Someone Coming Through,” the now obligatory spare minor-key number that always seems to find itself right near the penultimate track (see “Even If Love,” “There Is Something I Have To Say,” and “God’s Small Song”). But on an album that teeters on the brink of what many would toss into the dreaded and questionably-named “dad rock” heap, “Kids” closes it all out with references to aging, immobility and senility. “Kids, I hope in 20 years I can sing this song/ I feel my mind is going for a long time now,” Oldham confesses, adding that the calm and steady life he’s preached about for 45 minutes may have rendered him “afraid to move.” It all ends in Wonder Show’s most static moment, a cavalcade of overlapping guitars and voices followed by abrupt silence. Whether it signifies him snapping out of it and hitting the road or not, it’s a safe bet that the next time we hear from Will Oldham, he’ll be living in a new musical landscape with a new gang in tow.

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