Alas, poor Yorick. I… oh, wait. That’s just Will Oldham on the cover there. Sheesh. Kinda dark, eh, Mr. “Prince” Billy? From Oldham’s skeletal photo on the cover of Beware, you might think his latest offering was dark indeed. Like I See A Darkness dark. And there are dark moments (Oldham sings of fearing “destiny” and, as usual, sings plenty about death) on Beware, but it’s not anywhere near the darkness of…um… Darkness. Instead, Oldham has taken is increasingly country/gospel sound, thrown some horns into the mix, and coughed up one of his most satisfying albums to date.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy (aka Will Oldham, if you haven’t figured that out yet) has released an album a year for the last three years now, going back to 2007’s The Letting Go and increasing in country-friend awesomeness on through this year’s Beware. Along the way, the Bonnie Prince has perfected a scintillating stew of country/folk/gospel/blues that is arguably the most “alt” thing I could think of to call alt.country since Uncle Tupelo disbanded. (P.S. if you don’t know who Uncle Tupelo is/was, find yourself a copy of No Depression right fucking now.)
Oldham has, over his last two albums in particular carved out a niche for himself in the “future music of the past” category; I mean, maybe I’ve been playing too much Fallout and watching too much Cowboy Bebop (note: it is impossible to do too much of either of those things), but the more my entertainments tread the post-apocalyptic wasteland, the more fitting Oldham’s music seems. His music sounds to me exactly how I imagine the post-nuclear-holocaust folk/gospel will sound, only with more songs about fucking. Which is a good thing. Some folks will tell you that Beware is one of Oldham’s most overtly country records in a long time, but that simplistic label doesn’t do justice to what the dude has created. There’s straight up jazz in the muted trumpet that outroduces “You Don’t Love Me,” and it’s the kind of move no one – no one – in country music today has the stones to put out there (Incidentally, my favorite modern country album title is Shooter Jennings’ Put the “O” Back in Country – I might listen to that album on those merits alone).
On first listen, I was a little put off by the giant, seemingly out-of-place chorus singers on opener “Beware Your Only Friend,” but the more I listened to the whole album, the more the thing seems to fit together. Oldham’s gospel is one of sensual delights, with an awareness of God and His laws but also a firm desire to duck the Dude in the Sky and his capricious-ass wrath. Oldham affirms life, love, and sex, but never denies death (making one of the better “death-as-a-season” analogies on “Death Final,” a song that also illustrates Oldham’s gift for excellent and quirky word choice – how many songs do you hear with the word “hamhock” in them?). I can picture him wandering the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3, singing “You Don’t Love Me” and sending me on a quest for some irradiated rat meat. Or maybe he’s passed out in a chair at Moriarty’s saloon, waking up to be ridiculed by the mutant working the bar. Oldham uses multiple back-up singers all over Beware and with them creates more beautiful (and more hard-won) harmonies than an entire fleet of Fleet Foxes could ever come up with. For instance, the utterly lovely chorus of “I Won’t Ask Again,” where the chorus sings the titular line in awesome major-to-minor progression that gives me chills. Chills. So take that, all you people who read my review of The Boy Least Likely To and decided I just hate pretty music. I like pretty music fine. I just don’t like The Boy Least Likely To make it.
With Beware, Oldham has wandered far and wide as a minstrel in a universe of his own creation and, this time around, he has struck a particularly deep vein of musical gold. The melodies in Beware’s songs reach up from the depths of the chiming electric guitars and plucked bass notes, cresting like a wave and crashing down on a shore where, as Bukowski once wrote, “Radiated men eat the flesh of radiated men” (yeah, I know that’s from the same poem Doom sampled for “Cellz,” but it’s appropriate). I realize that some people feel Oldham is a much more traditional country-folkie than I give him credit for, but I cannot listen to his music in its proper historical context – this shit doesn’t come from Hank Williams or Woody Guthrie, not directly. It comes from the guy who, after the bombs rain down, will remember, through a sun-blasted haze, fragments of the old music and he’ll patch it together as best he can with his own strange words, making something that is at once old and new. He’ll shout the new gospel from mountaintops of rubble and bones, and it will be not in exact praise of the god who let it all happen, but in praise of the abilities of humans to still love and fuck and carouse, even after we do the Dr. Strangelove ending and crawl out of the vaults a hundred years later. Appropriately, Bonnie Prince Billy Oldham ends Beware with “Afraid Ain’t Me,” a song that is grammatically nightmarish but still drives home the point I’m making – the Bonnie Prince has trod the wasteland, seen God’s plan and where it got us, and is utterly unafraid to be alone in the face of it all. So once “all that Mad Max bullshit” (thank you, Modest Mouse) goes down, look for Will Oldham out in the wasteland and toss him some mole meat, a Nuka Cola, and sit down for a spell to hear the New Ol’ Stuff.