Smile Politely

Bonnie “Prince” Billy, folk troubadour

Bonnie “Prince” Billy is one of the many recording names of Will Oldham, a folk and indie singer-songwriter from Louisville, Kentucky, who has been making music for three decades. Oldham’s music can generally be characterized as minimalist, lo-fi folk guitar backing dusty, creaky vocals. His instrumentation functions primarily as a vehicle for his poetry, and is demonstrated more often than not in the form of ballads. His sound is intimate, honest, and warm, with the twang of Neil Young, and the philosophy of Leonard Cohen.

Oldham began his artistic career as an actor in the late 80’s, gaining a few mid-level gigs in various roles. After exhausting his interest in the field, he explored photography, before finally settling on music as his focus. Over his career, Will Oldham has recorded under various names. He has played as Palace, Palace Songs, and Palace Brothers, as well as using his given name for one album, before settling on the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker in 1997. His different recording names are divided projects, and seem to represent his different musical personalities. Oldham’s first album, There is No-One What Will Take Care of You, was released under the Palace Brothers name in 1993. It has a raw but pleasant vibe, sounding throughout like Oldham could clear his throat, but doesn’t see the need. His third release, 1995’s Viva Last Blues, is credited to Palace Music, and features Oldham at his closest to a typical rock music sound. The release fits into the 90’s alternative genre, with a clear influence from The Velvet Underground. Oldham would move away from the genre in favor of Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s quieter, folkier sound.

I See a Darkness is Will Oldham’s first album accredited to the Bonnie “Prince” Billy name, and is often lauded as some of his best work. Released in 1999, Darkness introduces the listener to some of Oldham’s central themes as a musician. It’s an in-depth, poignant look into one person’s battle with depression. Oldham’s style has always come down to a man and his guitar, and here, it makes for a palpable feeling of solitude. The album also features themes of sin, guilt, and alcoholism, and as such, it’s conceptually very gloomy. The title track, as well as “A Minor Place” and “Death to Everyone,” are some excellent takeaways. Darkness has received lofty accolades; it landed at #9 on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of the 1990s, and received the coveted 10.0 score from the indie music authority. This album, unabashed, heart-rending and never cheesy, is the essential takeaway from his catalog.

I See A Darkness album version

Though Darkness might be Oldham’s best release, one may argue that it is not fully representative of his body of work. Albums from deeper into his career speak better to the warmth his music often possesses. 2003’s Master and Everyone is his third album, and its ballads, like “The Way,” cement his now longtime occupation as a bard for loves kept and lost. His 2006 album, The Letting Go, is another keystone of his collection. It features Oldham’s slow, romantic serenades at their best. On this release, he makes use of backup for a more complete sound. The strings and female vocals deftly frame his singing. Highlights include “Love Comes To Me,” “Strange Form of Life,” and “Lay And Love,” the last of which is accompanied by an odd and tongue-in-cheek video.

“Lay and Love”

Dirges and ballads aside, Will Oldham is not without humor as an artist. He’s known to make weird and whimsical videos that put a new spin on some of his slower stuff. Throughout his career he has consistently produced re-recordings of older music, revamping songs and turning them into new ones. Perhaps the best example is the title track from I See A Darkness. A brooding, heartfelt lament in the truest sense, its lyrics come up hard against the depths of depression and vulnerability. The lyrics and the feel of this song are heavy with doubt and helplessness. However, on Oldham’s Now Here’s My Plan EP, he took the song and turned it on its head. Backed by a full and very appropriate accompaniment, Oldham speeds up the song, cutting it to almost half the length. It’s suddenly reborn as more of a pop tune, and becomes accessible, reflective, and even fun. Here, the words take on new meaning. The “darkness” is still there, but the doubt falls away.

The key line of the song goes,

“There’s a hope that somehow you can save me from this darkness.”

In this new version, the words “you can” are clear for what seems like the first time. The sadness becomes a shared burden and thus a lighter one. Now, thanks to the alternate arrangements, a new song is born, and Oldham’s masterful reinterpretation of his own music is at its peak.

The new version of “I See A Darkness” has a video that fits the crazy reversal perfectly.

Oldham’s versatility is an important quality of his musicianship, whether he’s working alone or collaborating with other artists. Over the years, Oldham has worked with a wide array of musicians, including David Byrne, Tortoise, Jason Molina, The Cairo Gang, Mick Turner, and many others. He once collaborated with Dawn McCarthy to put out an entire album of Everly Brothers covers. It’s not a secret that his lo-fi sparseness coupled with crackling, subtle singing can, on occasion, fall a bit short of fully supporting his thoughtful and intricate lyrics, and he’s not ignorant of this. Additional instrumentation can change the ear-fall of his lyrics from whispers into shouts, and that, in turn, can realize his music in a different way. Oldham also has a tendency to open up a bit more in the company of friends. The album Funtown Comedown exemplifies this well. Backed by the bluegrass group The Picket Line, the album is a session recording of old tunes and new covers, with a good deal of country feel to it. Oldham comes out of his shell and shows his Kentucky roots, and has a damn good time doing it.

He makes sure to have a lot of fun with covers. This version of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” recorded with Tortoise, is especially confusing and enjoyable.

Oldham’s most recent release, Pond Scum, features songs from his catalog performed as “Peel sessions” for the late British DJ John Peel, whose celebrated programs showcased some of the very best artists from all over the rock music spectrum. Recording Peel sessions is a privilege and a compliment, and Oldham does not disappoint.

When live, Will Oldham is known to provide down-to-earth, music-centered sets. For the approaching show, it would be right to expect an intimate set with some slower, more somber songs, and it would also be right to expect some wilder moments and real surprises. He’s a man with personality, and is sure to please old and new fans alike.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy is playing Friday, February 19th, at The Accord, with special guests Maiden Radio. Doors open at 7 pm and the show starts at 9 pm. Tickets are $20 in advance.

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