Bonnie “Prince” Billy Beware

[Drag City; 2009]

Styles: country & western, folk
Others: Lampchop, Bill Callahan, Woven Hand

Labeling Will Oldham (“Prince” Billy himself) “eclectic” is a colossal understatement. While he’s primarily spent the better part of the last 20 years offering up his distinct take on Americana, he’s scarcely passed up the chance to detour: Whether acting in offbeat films, dancing on tractors for Kanye, mutating classics with Tortoise, rhapsodizing about Easy-E and R. Kelly, photographing iconic album covers, or issuing limited 7-inch records with metal bands, it’s clear that the man either has no idea how an indie folk-star is supposed to act or is desperately doing his best to define the concept of such a thing for a post-genre, Wikipedia-sized world, high shorts and majestic beard in tow.

Given the ominous title of Beware, the new album from Oldham under his oft-used pseudonym with its bleak, Tonight’s the Night homage of a record sleeve, it’s reasonable to assume that the music within would match the dread presented -- perhaps similar to 1999's I See a Darkness. Instead, Beware sounds about as cheerful as Oldham has ever been, the pastoral undercurrent of 2006’s The Letting Go married with the countrypolitan standing of Greatest Palace Music and the full-bodied approach of last year’s rushed-to-market Lie Down in the Light. Oldham’s lyrical trademarks (God, his belly, sexually explicit exhortations) are paired with sumptuous instrumentation: fiddle, sax, flute, exotic percussion, pedal steel swells, washes of wah-wah guitars, and floods of organ and piano. The aural feast is befitting of Oldham’s trademark warble, which has gained over the steady course of his releases a sturdy, powerful tone, especially when coupled with violinist Jennifer Hutt’s high, ruddy vocals.

Oldham’s take on his familiar subjects -- sex, death and God -- are presented again in his signature unique, nearly alien manner. When he sings of sex, like in “Without Work, You Have Nothing” (“Move your hands faster/ That’s what your man wants/ It keeps his mind from frequenting his soiled haunts”), he does so in a remarkably innocent manner of someone who’s written gorgeous romantic ballads begging for public oral sex, lacking any guilt or shame. And when he sings "Dying with love upon you," he does it with the same odd candor. His explicitness isn’t reserved solely for dirty talk, and without ever applying anything like dogma, his reverence for God (or the idea of such an entity) is omnipresent, like in “Death Final,” where he sings with hushed sincerity, “God bless us as we cross from greensides into darker/ God love us as we lay in puddles of our own”, while later in the song he describes a cosmic oneness with the wit of a seasoned existentialist: “In a pit of bodies I am loved by all/ By ham hock and handkerchief/ By damsel and by doll.”

Yet despite such heavy concepts, Oldham never loses touch of the absurdist humor that graces his work and washes it in vivid Technicolor, the bizarre Wondershowzen factor: "I want to be your only friend/ Is that scary?" he croons on opener “Beware Your Only Friend.” Meanwhile, “You Don’t Love Me” jauntily sings to a lover not in love with the song’s protagonist: “You don’t love me/ But that’s alright/ ’Cause you cling to me all through the night.” The playfulness is accurately reflected in the music, with Oldham’s backing band playing off each trick of phrase. Indeed, Beware was cut in the studio immediately after the band had finished touring, and the live spirit of the group is on full display here. For all of the measured complexity and depth of the record, there’s a warmth and immediacy that’s often absent in Oldham’s studio albums.

All said, there’s nothing Beware has to offer to the Oldham naysayer. If the man’s curious oeuvre hasn’t already provided reason enough to pay attention, it’s doubtful Beware will convert anyone to the fold. But for those already attuned to Oldham’s songcraft, Beware is a rich and fulfilling work from a man who seems to have a paranormal grasp on human nature, with all the sensuality, God-fearing, tummy-rubbing and head-scratching that implies.

1. Beware Your Only Friend
2. You Can't Hurt Me Now
3. My Life's Work
4. Death Final
5. Heart's Arms
6. You Don't Love Me
7. You Are Lost
8. I Won't Ask Again
9. 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. [Untitled]

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