Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Palace Music, Palace Brothers, Palace or any other number of pseudonyms) is the type of artist who simply doesn’t come from any one locale or belong to any one time. There’s more than just a passing connection to the American folk tradition, but Oldham’s simultaneously one of the indie underground’s sturdiest pillars.
While Johnny Cash himself covered Oldham’s rather monumental ode to misanthropy, “I See a Darkness,” for his elegiac American series of albums, Oldham borrowed Tortoise as backing band for his own recent covers album, The Brave and the Bold (last year’s additional mini-LP of covers Ask Forgiveness re-cast Bjork, R. Kelly and, erm, Danzig as minimalist folk to boot). Were his indie cred ever in doubt, one needs only remind it was Oldham who snapped the cover shot for Slint’s Spiderland. With Oldham, there’s an eternally fascinating interplay between both strains of (not-always-so) popular music in his entire, wide-reaching catalogue.
Beware, Oldham’s newest chapter in the story of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, raises the stakes. He wraps his songs in lush instrumentation topped off with his most memorable choruses chanted in victorious harmonies. It’s a long way from the lo-fi days of Palace, but Beware is not without its own bite. Despite its surprising marimba, flute and saxophone-driven passages, Beware remains unmistakably Oldham through and through — a place where the tremendous hippie-jam finale of “Afraid Ain’t Me” can rest alongside the sweetly resigned dirge of “Death Final” in perfect harmony.
“I like to blend form and function,” he says via telephone from Oahu, where he and his mother escape Kentucky winters. “It seems to me that making a record seems to do with capturing a specific and unique event. It’s almost ideal if it could not be reproduced the next day. It could only have happened with that group of people in that time period.”
The route leading to Oldham documenting those events has its own strangely befitting and turbulent history. “I grew up thinking I was going to be an actor. I didn’t know how to make any life choices, but that’s what I thought,” he recalls. Granted, recent acting appearances in Old Joy and Junebug garnered Oldham due attention for his acting chops, but they also feel like surprisingly well-developed digressions from Oldham’s true musical purpose in life (to which he refers on Beware’s “My Life’s Work”).
“When I was confronted with the reality of that, I realized it was absolutely not what I imagined it to be,” he continues. “It’s not something I could do well or happily within the reality of what the acting profession is in this day and age. Part of my mind at this time was just like, ‘I’m more or less lost or dead,’ and I just kept thinking that word over and over again. That I was ‘dead.’” And from the start, as a muse, death has certainly been more than just a mere spectre at the sidelines. There are few capable of balancing life and death with as steady a hand — light and dark — with such simple grace and honesty.
“From there, things started to not matter as much, in the way that’s so eloquently expressed in the Peggy Lee hit ‘Is That All There Is?’” he says. And in the interim, Oldham’s enigmatic creation of his musical personae, the names he is occasionally accused of hiding behind, have unfolded as expertly as the finest in acting transformation. Sure, Oldham may still be acting out a part, but it’s the type of performance convincing enough to reveal facets of the real person behind it all.
Earlier this year, David Berman of the Silver Jews, one of Oldham’s longtime contemporaries, hung up his guitar and retired from performance, long unable to balance his onstage life with his offstage one. “David’s a very intense, very focused individual, and I feel like, to a large extent, something he needed was to have permission to push that out of his brain for a little while,” Oldham says.
For now, Oldham will not be making a similar pronouncement. “Frank Sinatra ended it two or three times and so did David Bowie, but it didn’t end,” he says. “I think about all the finalities I could pronounce for myself and then think, why bother? I’ll just keep those finalities for myself.”