Master of Every Song
Will Oldham does not want you to see songs, only hear them
By Sara Bir
Palace Music, Palace, Palace Brothers, Bonnie "Prince" Billy--take your pick. Ultimately, it's all Will Oldham, though that's not what Oldham would likely believe himself or have you believe. Critics enthrone him, indie-rock hipster kids worship him, and the mainstream music outlets of America don't recognize his name--er, names.
There's a lot of pressure in writing about Oldham, because his fans are the sort who could easily pinpoint an ill-informed critic. The unlikely details of Oldham's background are scattered over a trail of interviews in which Oldham affects record levels of squirreliness. Imagine, then, how it feels to be Oldham, to make music that's so loved and fixated on--music whose identity the public cannot manage to extricate from the real Oldham himself, whoever he is.
But facts first: Will Oldham is undeniably a weird dude, and that can be distilled just from first glances at his trademark unkempt appearance. There's not a lot of hair on the top of his head, but there's plenty in the back and a bushy mess of it up front (usually, at least) in the form of a crazy-man, Walt Whitman-style beard.
Oldham's background as an actor--in 1987, he played a leading role in the film Matewan--could account for his tendency to adopt a stable of personas for recording and performing. He's released three albums under the Bonnie "Prince" Billy moniker: 1999's I See a Darkness, 2001's Ease down the Road, and this year's Master and Everyone, which thematically walks the middle ground between the earlier two.
Prior to these, he put out one album under his given name but primarily worked under variations on the Palace Brothers name, often recording with his brothers Ned and Paul. Since the Palace days, Oldham's songs have become more stripped-down, musically; Master and Everyone is bare-bones in its musical accompaniment, but its focus on the eternal conundrums of domestic issues has a lived-in feel that's frequently mistaken for American roots music.
Oldham's compositions are so evocative that they make listeners remember things they were never around to forget and recall feelings they never experienced firsthand. There's a sense to his narratives that Oldham's singing his own life stories straight up, even though he's not, a gift the songwriter shares with such modern-day troubadours as Nick Cave and Tom Waits.
Oldham's lyrics are often oddly sexual too--or sexual and odd; it's hard to tell which. Erotic declarations and blunt desires crop up midverse from nowhere, though their presence is never as disruptive as it is placidly brazen. "She was a fine-looking lady / and she liked to go down on me / and I liked to go down on her, too" he sings with a wistful bluntness in "A King at Night."
There's a sincere fragility so clear in Oldham's voice--almost mouselike at times--which, when sung over his narratives, makes the songs faraway and mysterious and familiar all at once.
Notoriously reticent during interviews, Oldham rarely consorts with the media these days; the notion of celebrity and its corrosive power upon an artist's vision seem to sicken him. When he is available for public comment, the results can be befuddling and cryptic.
"What makes a record different has to do with people and time of year and weather and just time," he was quoted in online magazine Neumu. And in a note printed on fancy letterhead that came with our Bonnie "Prince" Billy press pack, Oldham cryptically scribbled, "Nobody is supposed to see, ever, just hear, which is why we make records."
That's the enigma of Will Oldham. He's a tough nut to crack, though with a seemingly endless chain of recordings to scrutinize, it's impossible not to examine the evidence and try.
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy will play at the Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes Station, 11201 Hwy. 1, on Tuesday, May 6. Brightblack and the amazing harpist Joana Newson, who is very much worth checking out herself, open. Show starts at 8pm. $5. 415.663.1661.
From the May 1-7, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.