Will Oldham’s Art of Omission
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Will Oldham’s singing has a hushed quality, as if he’s always imparting a secret. Often, he is: His music is full of poetic wisdom and hardwon, simple truths. Yet the trick of his beguiling art is that he always holds back; his half-heard confidences leave out as much as they disclose.
Nowhere is this more evident than on “The Letting Go,” his new album under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker. Given the title, one expects to hear some reflection on the recent passing of Mr. Oldham’s father, but though paternal imagery runs through several of the songs, the album was recorded before his father’s death, and its real subject is the more-commonplace, but no less enigmatic letting go of romantic love.
The album’s first track, “Love Comes to Me,” opens with an uncharacteristic sound: a classical string quartet. Mr. Oldham immediately undercuts its high production value with background muttering: “dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-dum.” Soon the song settles into the more-familiar, organic sounds of acoustic guitar and distant percussion.The subject here is love’s inexplicable associations and inopportunities: “When the fever hits your forehead / and trusive mice chew up your bed / and you call on God, but God is dead / love comes to me,” he sings.
There’s a wonderful little intermezzo three minutes in. The music drops away, the meter changes, and Mr. Oldham sings, apropos of who knows what, “I’m a hard-hearted honey-pot lonely shepherd and I’m longing to be born for you that’s her.” Then the song resumes as it was. It’s a device Mr. Oldham uses throughout the record.
“The Letting Go” was recorded in Reykjavik, Iceland, and one wants to attribute some of its quiet magic to the setting. But only one song “sounds” like Iceland: “God’s Small Song” has whalecall sonics that are virtually indistinguishable from the alien opera singing of Sigur Ros frontman Jonsi Birgisson. With its bouncy, John Hurt-style fingerpicking, “Cold & Wet” evokes another musical landscape: Mississippi hill country. The lyrics conjure a Dylan-esque dreamscape: “Introduce to every soul a drink made of tears / hear them bicker watch them die impaled on balsa spears / and looking in the morning, the streets are flooded out/the men are wailing toothless, the ladies ghostly pout,” he sings.
The bulk of the album, however, resists geography and genre altogether. If anything, the sturdy, contemplative songs call to mind the quiet craftsmanship of Smog’s Bill Callahan. Mr. Oldham has chosen an ideal backing vocalist for these whispered epics in Dawn McCarthy, best known for her work with the otherworldly theatrical band Faun Fables. On early songs like “Strange Form of Life” and “Wai,” she sounds like a slightly mad Natalie Merchant. Her voice floats ever upward, a feather borne on the breeze, while Mr. Oldham’s remains gravelly and earthbound.
Ms. McCarthy provides an ethereal counterpoint to Mr. Oldham on “Then the Letting Go.” Her alternating lines pursue their own narrative, echoing the song’s story line about a broken rendezvous. Her character is Mr. Oldham’s childhood companion, but whether she is human, animal, or some imaginary amalgam of the two is unclear.The tender-yet-nightmarish reunion at the end suggests the last possibility: “In the quiet of the day, well I laid her low,” Mr. Oldham sings,”and used her skin as my skin to go out in the snow.”
As “The Letting Go” progresses, it gets weirder musically.This is nice for variety’s sake; Mr. Oldham’s albums often become a bit too monochromatic. But the results are mixed. “The Seedling” is faux Tom Waits — off-kilter, repetitive, and menacing. Mr. Oldham delivers his lines in a Waitsian croak, while Ms. McCarthy acts as a discordant backing chorus. “Lay and Love” is a heartwarming appreciation of a woman set to a lame little trip-hop beat, like Stephin Merritt at his worst.
More sublime is the subtle experimentation of “No Bad News.” The music is fairly straightforward, a tense, minimalist composition of picked guitar and strings that carries echoes of a Morricone soundtrack. But the story is artfully elusive.
“No Bad News” begins with the arrival of some terrible, unexplained news. The remainder of the song analyzes its effect on the messenger, without ever disclosing the nature of the news itself. The lyrics are wonderfully vivid: “She shakes her face so fiercely that all her features go / she lays like a monkey unclothed in the snow / and her voice it decays, and before it does she goes / ‘I will never again deliver bad news.'”
Within this parade of imagery, Mr. Oldham keeps his secrets. He has perfected the art of omission.