Will Oldham is an odd fellow. From his innumerable monikers, his beard, to his habit of apparently releasing an album every few months, he is on a one-man crusade to corner the “rather eccentric country-tinged singer-songwriter” market. Maybe he’s seen the duller likes of Bon Iver and Ray Lamontagne come along and steal his thunder, and he’s just not happy about it. Or anything, for that matter.
Following on from last year’s “Is This The Sea?” and “Lie Down In The Light” comes “Beware”. The quality of his albums has taken something of a hit since “Bonnie Prince Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music” back in 2004. This was not well received, causing something of a storm back in the day, and prompted a seriously negative review in Pitchfork, amongst others. The criticism was largely thanks to reinterpretation of his own work as Palace Brothers/Music/Records, as pure Nashville Country rather than the cracked alt-Country/Americana everyone had kind of got used to. Now, I rather liked it; or some of it, at least. The versions of “West Palm Beach” and “New Partner” really shone, were better than their original lo-fi recordings, and as a whole I thought it worked nicely. But many felt he’d taken the piss and wrecked his own mystique.
So, since that album there’s been “The Letting Go” and “Lie Down In The Light”, both of which were disappointing, plus rather a lot of collaborations, of which “Superwolf” was ok, and the rest less than essential. Can he make a return to form with his new album, knuckling down and finally returning to the excellence of, well, much of his work from 1995 to “Master And Everyone”?
Listening to “Beware” I was at first disappointed, then a little buoyed (those darn glockenspiel!), then disappointed again. Look, I know I’ve already bummed out M Ward’s Hold Time, but this is turning out to be a bit of a poor year for some of the old stalwarts. Where to begin? Well, first of all, for all the swinging country vibe, it just doesn’t catch in the brain. Will Oldham has always managed to pen tunes, that for whatever odd reason, stick in the head. Not quite earworms, exactly, but tunes that dance just on the edge of conciousness, all day long, until you just have to listen to them again and again. Subliminal earworms, if you like. But this? Nothing. I pretty much forgot most of the songs the instant they stopped playing.
Is this just not having had enough time to listen properly, and let those tunes seep into my head? Possibly. But neither of his last two albums succeeded in doing that, and I’m not sure this one will either. It’s not all bad, though, don’t get me wrong. The single “I Am Goodbye” is carried along jauntily by all manner of countrified accoutrements – pedal steel, jangly Telecaster, flutes, fiddle. And loving the beard:
“Death Final” is a beautiful, fiddle-drenched ballad. Well, I say it’s a ballad, I get the feeling he’s being Bad Will again. “You Don’t Love Me” shows his wicked wit again, saying how his paramour “loves the way my stomach jiggles” and how “my kiss rates as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10”.
But the album has the feel of a man who’s running out of ideas, and is trying to make up for them by piling on instrument after instrument hoping no-one will notice the shallowness underneath. I really want to like this album more, but at the moment it’s just not doing it for me.
Funnily enough, I was thinking of Smog/Bill Callahan whilst listening to “Beware”. Bill came to prominence at around the same time as Billy, and whilst their music is generally quite different, it comes from the same dark place, and with similar influences, from old country and folk, seen through the prism of The Velvet Underground’s more narcotic numbers. Now, Bill had a similar downturn, with albums like “Rain On Lens”, but he pulled himself out of it, partly thanks to, well, cheering up a bit (and the lissom charms of Joanna Newsom can’t have hurt, either¹). His last two albums have featured a few songs which are up there with his finest, like “From The Rivers To The Oceans” and “Rock Bottom Riser”. Wonder if Billy C could take Willy O out for a beer, watch some Nascar, so one ol’ dog can show another some new tricks.
¹ Speaking of which, if you were at the Homefires festival at the Conway Hall back in 2004, or 2005, when both were on the bill, were they seeing each other then? We have fond memories of her heckling him in the most elven, delicate way, by yelling “YOU RAWK!” very loudly in her best Valley girl voice. Answers on a postcard, please.