11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Bonnie "Prince" Billy & The Cairo Gang
The Wonder Show Of The World
Will Oldham's best record since The Letting Go? We think so.
We don't normally debut album reviews on MOJO4music. But Will Oldham's increasingly quirky release policy (something to do with Drag City's piracy paranoia, I'm informed, but there's surely some Oldham orneryness* in it somewhere) means that The Wonder Show Of The World arrived in the MOJO office last week, too late for inclusion in the magazine that hits the streets on Tuesday. And a new Bonnie "Prince" Billy album is too important an event to leave till MOJO's next onsale date, even if Oldham's prolific output, and refusal to promote this release, might imply otherwise.
With over 20 albums under various guises over 17 years, and increasing numbers of parenthetical collaborations (including a "Bonny Billy" sideline) Oldham is now a genre unto himself, with an unmistakeable style that survives regular transfusions from third parties, like the atmospheric Nico Muhly arrangements and Dawn McCarthy bvs that took 2006's The Letting Go to another level, and the Matt "Chavez" Sweeney guitarwork that enlivened 2007's Superwolf.
The Cairo Gang are Emmett Kelly (not this one), Oldham's go-to guitarist since The Letting Go, and bassist Shahzad Ismaily. Between them, they craft an intimate, chamber folk-rock that's very different from the fuller, straighter country bounce of 2009's Beware, a record that from title to cover art had "For Will Oldham Fans Only" written all over it.
A skein of CSN&Y runs through The Wonder Show Of The World. It's there in Oldham's unusually mellifluous phrasing, the high vocal harmonies and Kelly's sensual axe intercessions. The lyrical themes - family and forestry figure - are familiar, and there are moments of typical Oldham pungency ("the smell of your box on my moustache", on That's What Our Love Is, is too much information) and spectral disquiet. But overall, it is a more easygoing bulletin than we're used to from this quarter, with Oldham's tone of amusement and delight elevated to transports of ecstasy on the record's arguable high-spot, Merciless And Great.
Oldham made his name walking the line between the real and the other, and has explored the torment of love more fearlessly than any other contemporary songwriter, a dauntlessness exemplified in Superwolf's unbearable I Gave You ("I gave you a child and you didn't want it"). Perhaps The Wonder Show Of The World is Oldham rewarding his characters for their endurance and suffering, for the unenviable visions that riddled his oeuvre-defining I See A Darkness, with unexpected succour.
In The Sounds Are Always Begging on The Wonder Show Of The World, the narrator's wife goes crazy and "starts chopping up the bed". In previous Bonnie "Prince" Billy songs, this would be the prelude to much worse, but Oldham doesn't sound bothered by it, so why should we? No-one died, for a change.
*He once insisted he would not be photographed by MOJO unless provided with a throne, a crown, a quiver of arrows, an infant and an "authentic-looking" Nubian eunuch. Here's what we came up with...
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 12:16 PM GMT 25/03/2010