Will Oldham, the man behind the cryptic moniker Bonnie Prince Billy, is one of the best songwriters of the last 20 years. Along with peers Dave Pajo (Papa M), Bill Callahan (Smog) and Chan Marshall (Cat Power), he has resurrected the spectre of Appalachian folk music and injected it with his own, often disturbing, idiosyncrasies. As an actor in the late 1980's, Oldham starred in the Oscar-winning Matewan, and he often applies an actorly technique to his songwriting, adopting the tongue of the rural South USA and spinning Faulkner-like tales of loss, twisted love, sin, redemption and incest. Never has a man so quietly, and yet so determinedly, stamped his presence on the underground as Will Oldham.
While universally acclaimed, many found Oldham's last album 'I See A Darkness' overbearingly maudlin, despite it's brief glimpses of jet-black humour. And on first impression, his new album seems to leave behind any trace of the ghostly, minimal melancholia on display earlier. Instead, album opener 'May It Always Be' is full to the brim with beautiful harmonies, triumphant piano and genuine Country and Western swing. The lyrics, too, seem surprisingly direct and free of perversion, as Oldham sings of a redeeming, hectic love. ("And in the morning we'll wrestle, ruin our stomachs with coffee/Won't we be happy?"). As the album proceeds, however, Oldham's traditional lyrical concerns reveal themselves, in the form of masterly surrealism ("the dog licks the shark dry in your photographing") and wilful perversity, contrasting with the breezy music of much of the songs on offer here. ("sara walks a slinkly strut/very gorgeous anxious slut/has a love scar on her wrist/we'll give her our painful fist").
Musically, the album shines with melodies that refuse to leave the brain for days. While much of the music here retains the porch-strummin' ramshackle sound normally associated with Oldham, Ease Down The Road also displays a more mature understanding of folk traditions and a willingness to subvert them fully. The gorgeous strum of 'May It Always Be', then, is interrupted by one of the most unexpected guitar solo's for a long time, and the title track 'Ease Down The Road' is driven by a rapid, plucked banjo. The vocals, too, are given a considerable boost; Oldham's cracked tone is skillfully augmented by a plethora of backing vocalists, including Oldham's brother Ned, Dave Pajo, Catherine Irwin and even Harmony Korine, the enfant terrible of modern US indie cinema.
Here, then, is the sound of an artist reaching his creative peak, and bringing his friends along with him. I don't expect this album to leave my stereo for at least a year, and I cannot recommend it to you enough.
10Tom Eyers's Score