Bonnie "Prince" Billy
(Drag City; 2009)
By Colin McGowan & Dom Sinacola | 18 March 2009
Beware is exactly the kind of album Bonnie “Prince” Billy should make at this point in his career. It is a career after all, slightly less than a vocation, and that distinction’s only made because we’re not entirely convinced that Will Oldham, when under the escutcheon of his dandy, lazy-to-type nom de plume, is at the mercy of some higher calling. Maybe that’s too romantic—convinced, or aided, as we believe we should be, by wills more powerful than our own to communicate beautiful and worthwhile pieces of art to the so-called masses—to need one’s life’s work to connect to a celestial order. But Bonnie “Prince” Billy writes romantic music, admires romantic icons and romance in general, even when he’s at his lowest, so why not question where all that primordial sweetness really comes from?
Oldham would like you to think it emanates from his belly laugh or saccharine sadness, but the answer isn’t so simple, hidden somewhere between his cellulite and neuroses. He fucks with us: his first words are “I want to be your only friend,” and, even though he pauses to make sure such a strange statement doesn’t scare us, especially those of “us” who haven’t placed votives at the altar of Oldham fandom, we’re all “Yeah absolutely!” only to have “My active mind don’t wish it so” lobbed our way, chastising how we could even entertain such attachment. “That’s where the seed of soul-sucking grows,” he follows, wagging his finger. But we just kinda fawn because, jeez, he sounds such a broken narrator, treating the bouncing voice of Gene Clark’s ghost like a creepy ultimatum.
In other words, as fans we’re sadists—we acknowledge Lil Wayne devotees in the hallway—we claim no originality in this; mostly because Oldham’s always walked an awkward line between recluse and defining artistic presence, which in itself is nothing new either. Over fifteen years he has put out possibly around one hundred releases in some form or another and has found himself an eager, growing maw to feed, one that’s shown him how hard works pays off and one that, in turn, demands more and more from him, an expectation Oldham shirks with just as much exponential fervor. Perhaps avoiding arguments and general impatience, Oldham’s Beware is intended to follow a typically thorough PR push, atypical to Oldham, if only so he can prove that he’s been right all along. It’s a chuckle, if entirely fictional, the notion of Oldham being forced on the masses as readily as NOW 83, sitting in a fluorescent-lit Borders next to a life-size cutout quietly loathing himself and responding with a faintly palpable atom of disdain to interviewers’ inquiries. There’s no salient reason to expect more than usual from Beware‘s performance—Oldham’s already squeezed through his own idiosyncratic share of the mainstream megaverse—so the extra marketing put into this album only appears a kind of frivolous gesture, a bet made on Oldham’s two-headed coin, more myth to pump into the BPB name.
So, let’s try this again: Beware is exactly the album to be expected from Oldham, now, as he begins to investigate the limelight, as he trots out his friendships with gothic southern troubadours (Jim White), say, or free jazz northerners (Rob Mazurek and Nicole Mitchell), wondering whether to scamper back to the stern nobody-ness Drag City allows him or push on expanding his solipsistic world. But seemingly every album he makes fits that bill: depressed, glowing, milquetoast, stolidly condescending, bear-ish, or utterly content, Oldham’s boy king wobbles relentlessly between good-ness and bad-ness like an exhausted drinker, in and out of the “light” that means so much to him. “I take this load on, it is my life’s work / To bring you into the light, out of the dark,” he tells us, his audience, as sparse, stentorian drums and long, liquid pauses confirm the anthemic meat to his message; for the saxophone tells us so. This may be the first album in which Oldham addresses his fans without enigma or stricture—his symbolism is simple and naïve, motifs culled from everything he’s done before—so we believe him.
Oldham waffles; not in a vulnerable sense, in a selfish one. I’m coming back, but I might not. I don’t need love, but please love me. These petulant flaws explain the flimsiness of the endearing-ness of Oldham’s flimsiness, and we’re, because he’s now speaking to us, left to pick up the pieces. Oldham’s career, especially under the BPB moniker, resides in the ether of such flimsiness—the implausibility of one human being recording songs of apathetic hate like “Another Day Full of Dread” and tender ballads like “Strange Form of Life.” It makes one wonder whether he wants to curl up in a tub with a lover or a razor blade until, shit, we recognize and are left with the starkness of our own schizophrenia. He’s exactly as prone to disemboweling mood swings as the rest of us.
Of course, these songs remind us in equal measure that Oldham is something of a cantankerous Jesus, composed of the same flesh and bad dreams we are but ultimately alien, wandering door-to-door for a fitting adjective to flatter his ego—but not too much. He’s probably seeking out the word “precocious,” his goals ostensibly humble and his be-whiskered grin genuinely infectious, and sporadically he trips into whiny self-absorption. Which: all is forgiven—don’t cry, please, ‘cause we’d feel like bad people—but not all contradiction is profound, otherwise we’d all be in awe of our general inconsistencies and pettiness. It’s almost exclusionist populism, the way Oldham bitches and generalizes, judging the rest of his gender on “Without Word, You Are Nothing” and intermittently imploring his lovers to be better. He may or may not realize his nimbleness of language and occasionally minimalist philosophies separate him from Bob the Malcontent Accountant; after all, he’s just Bill the Eccentric Musician and work is work.
You get it. It’s pure speculation our attempting to mine his elusive dome with only the meager documents he provides, the kind of speculation Oldham is probably trying to avoid, but it’s difficult to avoid: Beware, while a decidedly typical Will Oldham record, is every typical Will Oldham record smushed and churned together so that happy music accompanies bad proclamations, wraith-like strings speak of long love and longer life. And where do we end up? Our hearts, in their reductive logic, shout “another great Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album, ya turkey,” (our hearts speak in unison, in the voice of John C. Reilly) but it’s the sort of stuff that makes our brains turn over mid-slumber. Billy has gone out into the world and done a bunch of shit and laments the wasted time, but then he celebrates that gorgeously in song; he’s not a dad and probably never will be, and now his women treat him like dad while he struggles with his mommy issues, and the whole fucking ball of yarn, but, damningly fuzzy this all is, we watch it slovenly unravel like spittle on a sleeping man’s lip and rewind itself as the man grunts and wakes. We know this will happen again, and soon, but that simple fact won’t erase how goddamned fascinating this guy’s drool is.