Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware

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Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – Beware (Drag City Records; released March 17th, 2009)

How exactly do I approach a Will Oldham record review? I can say even if it totally sucked, I’d still find it immensely entertaining; that’s how much I love the man. I should’ve gave this review to someone else to do, but just seeing the announcement of the release date back in November had me salivating profusely. I can add this disclaimer: it’s unfairly biased.

Now that that’s all out of the way, here goes…

Beware, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy‘s seven-thousandth release (not really- more like 22 full-lengths and 21 EPs) is a tale of two sides. The first side is more jovial and upbeat, the flip side is “classic” Bonnie, as in melancholic, honest and fragile. The entire album is ambitious in its scope; there’s a whole bunch of new instruments and dips into some un-chartered territory stylistically.

Drag City has afforded Mr. Oldham the luxury of being able to re-invent himself with every release- and with every new offering, his voice has been steadily maturing. A fuller, more realized (dare I say more confident) sound emanates from his vocal chords here on Beware; gone is the thin, anxious warble that’s so endeared Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy to his listener’s ears. Also rounding out his musical vision here is an extension of what we’ve heard on his last three records (and came together in perfect harmony on last year’s stellar Lie Down In The Light), a masterfully produced album with female accompaniment.

A lot of this record operates under the assumption that you’re familiar with the scope of his previous work; he re-visits a lot of themes from antecedent albums- longing for lost love (You Are Lost & You Can’t Hurt Me Now), self-deprecation (Beware Your Only Friend & You Don’t Love Me), death (Death Final & I Am Goodbye) and children (I Don’t Belong To Anyone). If you’re seeing a common theme here, eight of the thirteen songs have I, me or my in their title and four more with you or your in their title. This is as autobiographical as it gets, so it wouldn’t hurt to delve into Will‘s back catalog…

…but it can also be a good starting point for beginners.

This album is aptly titled Beware, and I’m noticing that if there’s one thing Oldham does with deft precision is naming his records exactly as they should be. I See A Darkness (morbid and depressive), Master & Everyone (God and spirituality), The Letting Go (estrangement and divisiveness), Lie Down In the Light (in title, it’s probably the antithesis of I See A Darkness, it has a quality of luminous radiance) and Beware acts as a warning; Bonnie Billy is going to again bare his soul to you, and if you don’t like it- you were warned.

Psychological profiling aside; let’s get into the actual music- channeling the Countrypolitan and Nashville Sound of the ’60s and ’70s through Chet Atkins, George Jones, Loretta Lynn, et al- it has a really polished, country feel replete with excellent backing from the standard instruments: dobros, mandolins, fiddles, laid-back percussion, etc. It sounds as if it was recorded by the best and brightest session musicians waiting backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, circa 1973. Musically, it’s akin to that record he did with actual Nashville session mainstays, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music– I don’t agree with a lot of critic’s unfair treatment of that record; he’s allowed to cover himself, they’re his fucking songs, he can do whatever he wants with them, schmaltzy or not.

Anyway, tangents aside; this is a good record. Not great, I’d put it towards the bottom half of his musical output. But when you’ve written something like 250 songs over the past seventeen years, there’s bound to be some misses. If anything positive can be said about this record, it’s that Mr. Oldham is trying (quite successfully) to draw you in closer to his world; there’s an unspoken bond between the performer and his audience that’s so real and indestructable, his imprint is felt all over the music world. No one can do it like Bonnie, no one even comes close- so for him to step out of his comfort zone and deliver an album so shortly after his last shows his versatility. It also proves to me that him stepping out of his comfort zone is his comfort zone…

…which leaves me to wonder: is Will Oldham in search of one perfect, distinct sound or can he keep delving into different facets of Americana, mining it for aural gold?

Tracklisting:

01  Beware Your Only Friend
02  You Can’t Hurt Me Now
03  My Life’s Work
04  Death Final
05  Heart’s Arms
06  You Don’t Love Me
07  You Are Lost
08  I Won’t Ask Again
09  I Don’t Belong to Anyone
10  There Is Something I Have to Say
11  I Am Goodbye
12  Without Work, You Have Nothing
13  Afraid Ain’t Me

Bonnie Prince Billy