The Brilliant Disguises of Will Oldham

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

If there's anything difficult about listening to Will Oldham's music, it's trying to ignore his myth: a fiercely independent, Kentucky-born folk singer who covers R. Kelly and Danzig with equal passion; a reluctant but assured interviewer who tends to answer either in single words ("No") or intimate disclosures ("There are erotic aspects to it," he once said of his beard); a bandleader who under-rehearses his musicians and rarely uses the same sidemen twice; a heretic who re-recorded his frail, hesitant early work with a band of Nashville sure-shots on 2004's Sings Greatest Palace Music; and a record collector's dream who once claimed that it's "more rewarding to be complicit with scarcity than excess," but has released more than 40 albums, compilations, and EPs (not counting short-run singles) since 1993.

His songs are so cosmically naked that it almost feels like a betrayal to be reminded that he performs under a pseudonym—that the person standing onstage isn't the same one who walks off it. But personas are nothing new. They're a way for their wearers to become something bigger than they are or, ironically, say what they really mean. What's curious in Oldham's case is that he doesn't pretend to be an outlaw or freak, but a God-fearing guy who cracks the occasional joke about death; who celebrates sex but sometimes looks very, very lonely; who sometimes revels and sometimes withdraws; whose English is mostly Biblical with flashes of barstool. If he pretends, it's to a character with all the inconsistencies of a real person.

His first albums, Palace Brothers's There is No-One What Will Take Care of You and Days in the Wake, were full of voice cracks, finger-tangles, and slack rhythms—ineptitude that, in indie-music circles, is often conflated with authenticity and sincerity. In retrospect, though, the warty, fumbling performances are secondary to the music itself—a mix of folk, gospel, and country that somehow sounded immediate, bare-bones, and evasive at the same time. Oldham even adapted a song by Washington Phillips, an East Texan singer from the 1920s best known for the fact that nobody knew what kind of instrument he played—an artist, in a sense, defined by mystery. (I'm not suggesting he adapted it to be clever. Doubters might question Oldham's earnestness, but he's definitely, unquestionably, and very refreshingly not clever.)

In 1999, Oldham, rechristened Bonnie "Prince" Billy, released I See a Darkness, an album that focused the fragility and desolation Palace was known for to an almost elemental intensity. He followed it with 2001's Ease Down the Road, a clean, confident album primarily about fucking, whether intimate companion or half-stranger, whether his wife or someone else's. (In the days of Palace, his most forthcoming lyric on the subject was, "Yes, you have pulled my manhood into your corner," while Road openly discussed oral, showcased his first slow jam—"After I Made Love to You"—and contained the lyric "my fingers in your behind.") The dichotomy is essential to his character: Darkness was a morbid, yearning album about the chasms between people, while Road celebrated effortless companionship. And from both sides, Oldham sounded convincing. The following two albums, 2003's Master and Everyone and 2006's The Letting Go, were the first in his catalog I didn't feel compelled to buy—they sounded icy and beautiful, but had none of the harried and accidental qualities I'd come to love about his approach.

In the past 10 months, he's released two full-length records, Lie Down in the Light and Beware, both with Nashville producer Mark Nevers, who also engineered Master and Everyone and co-produced Greatest Palace Music. Nevers is best known for working with Lambchop, a country-jazz-lounge band with the remarkable ability to make large numbers of musicians—sometimes up to 13—sound like a light breeze through a few stray papers. But he's also produced records that draw out the strange qualities latent in country and gospel music, like the dreamy, noirish extremes of Nashville balladry on Bobby Bare's The Moon Was Blue, or Charlie Louvin's Steps to Heaven, a dry, elegant album of church songs that pit a warbling octogenarian against a single piano and three black female singers who don't hold much back. They weren't brilliant albums, and while I hesitate to call them arty, their production was certainly self-aware. I mention it because Nevers is a great match for Oldham—a misfit who toys incessantly with American traditions without ever breaking them.

His stamp is evident: Lie Down in the Light—the "little" album to Oldham, and my favorite release of last year—was exceptionally careful in arrangement but gentle in delivery, a thoughtful, optimistic album that extolled everything from family and friends to public fellatio. By comparison, Beware is brawny and convivial, full of group chants and guitar solos, of heaves and sighs and swing and stomp, at once the most country and Southern-rock record Oldham's made. He called it his "big" album, which feels right—not exactly Lie Down's opposite, but a companion or dependent, like a moonrise to a sunrise.

Most of the songs detail the pitfalls of getting too close to people—"Beware Your Only Friend" (emphasis on "only"), "You Can't Hurt Me Now" ("but I still fear God's plan"), "You Don't Love Me" ("but that's all right, because you cling to me all through the night"). The implication is that if you get too close to other people, you lose yourself—an image of self-sufficiency that Oldham has worked toward, but also borrowed from country music. He's glad you don't love him (because he doesn't love you, either), but it's nice that you enjoy coupling. He's leaving in the morning and doesn't know when he's coming back. He doesn't belong to anyone. He's goodbye, and you, poor you, are hello.

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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