The Brilliant Disguises of Will Oldham

A deft, deeply enigmatic folkie stays weird even when he gets accessible

When I consider the trajectory of Oldham's career, I can't help but think of Cat Power, another flickering myth who refashioned herself as an honest entertainer. But Cat Power's transition looks like a Faustian bargain in retrospect, by which I mean she's become a dreadful artist, borderline devoid of personality. Beware and Lie Down are undoubtedly Oldham's most accessible, professional-sounding albums, but his tics still suffuse the music like a musk: the rough, dynamic vocal performances; the bursts of saxophone and beatnik flute; the stops and starts; the structural twists; the raggedness and swagger. More than ever, Will Oldham looks stranded on an island of his own creation: probably too rooted in tradition to enchant most younger listeners, too erratic and unpredictable for meat-and-potato types, and too inscrutable to be trusted by people who think artifice is fruity.

Beware isn't a conclusion or a beginning—it's just an elaboration of his character. Oldham's professed heroes are R. Kelly, Leonard Cohen, and Merle Haggard, not "enigmas," but personalities that grew deeper, thornier, and more believable with every album. Listening to his music while growing up, I never wondered about the person under the monikers—it seemed unfair to him and a waste of time to me. Bonnie "Prince" Billy doesn't get stomach viruses or pay taxes, which, and here's my bit of speculation, is probably a relief to Oldham. He recently told The Wire that Elvis's lack of artifice is part of the reason he fell apart: "He couldn't live as what he'd created himself to be." The comment struck me because it was coarse, but sympathetic, something lofty and obscure, but something he felt. A little profound, a little posturing. Oldham had never seemed so much like Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy plays the Apollo May 21

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