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Prince of Darkness

Having moved away from Palace, Will Oldham breaks down as Bonnie Prince Billy.

Poor old Europe. The continent just can't catch a break -- not from crowing Fox News hawks, not even from arty musicians.

"I hate going there," says Will Oldham, who recently returned from an overseas jaunt in support of Master and Everyone, his latest release as alter ego Bonnie Prince Billy. "It's just a pain in the neck, you know? There's probably certain folk music and certain culinary items you can't get over here, but I like being here because I like being able to communicate with people. When you go around the U.S., you can talk to people at the shows. When you're over there, it's very difficult. It's very lonely when you're traveling over there."

Loneliness is a familiar realm for the man known variously as Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace, the Palace Brothers, Palace Music and Will Oldham. So is self-contradiction. For example, despite the abundance of names he uses -- which could be seen as a device to throw up walls between himself and the world rather than fostering the connections he claims to crave -- he's found a fairly consistent character standpoint from which to tell his tales. The guises change, but the themes remain: Much of the time, he sings as a solitary, flawed man trying to stave off his obsession with death by relentlessly drinking and chasing women -- and chasing love.

Man out of time: Will Oldham is Bonnie Prince Billy.
Man out of time: Will Oldham is Bonnie Prince Billy.

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His search began in his native Louisville, Kentucky, in 1993, with There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, his first full-length record under the Palace banner. Released on the heels of the well-received seven-inch "Ohio River Boat Song," the disc is an assemblage of tales of lust, booze and guilt, tinged with old-fashioned wordplay but stripped of the innocence of an earlier time. Oldham's warbling, fractured, Appalachia-stained vocals often caused people to mistake him for an old man. (A former actor who wrote plays as a child, he actually played an old man in John Sayles's 1987 film Matewan, a grim dramatization of the coal-mining labor wars of 1920s West Virginia.)

After issuing three more records as Palace -- Days in the Wake, Viva Last Blues and Arise, Therefore -- Oldham switched to his given name and released 1997's Joya, an album that solidified his low-key, Gothic Americana sound. As Bonnie Prince Billy, he gave the world one of the most unrelentingly bleak records in the history of Western music, 1999's I See a Darkness, a desolate montage of ruminations on death and the living death of loneliness. He followed that with 2001's slightly more upbeat Ease Down the Road, a record that also may have glanced off the outer edges of mortality but mostly concentrated on Oldham's other obsession: sex.

With Master and Everyone, Oldham seems to have finally found love -- or, at least, a unique sort of contentment -- and a place to stow his restlessness for a while. If Darkness is the Bonnie Prince Billy death record and Ease is his sex record, then Masteris his love record.

"It definitely feels like the songs come from some kind of different place than the last two records," the notoriously guarded Oldham says. "And maybe it is from an 'inside' perspective versus an 'outside' perspective. I hear different people say different things."

Regardless of its warmer point of view, Master and Everyone is a lean affair, musically. It's easy to imagine the album being recorded in a small, bare room with wooden floors, a stained mattress in one corner and a single dirty lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. The frugal arrangements can be partly credited to the involvement of Mark Never, guitarist and engineer for avant-country band Lampchop. Oldham's voice is rendered so intimately that it sounds as if he's whispering in the listener's ear; his tales of the imperfections of love and being human are sung over simple, finger-picked guitar lines. Seemingly untouched, the straightforward recordings carry the creak of floorboards, the zing of fingers sliding up the strings and even the saliva-smack sound of Oldham opening his mouth. The songs feel effortless, airy and almost remote in comparison to Oldham's earlier work; in descriptions of the album, the word that keeps coming up on fan Web sites and in the music press is "smooth."

"That's great," Oldham says. "'Smooth,' especially if it's in writing, probably means more units moved, because people will read it and be like, 'Oh, I can handle smooth. That sounds good. Honey, let's go get this smooth record.' I'm surprised listening to some of the earlier recordings just how discordant they can sound, because at the time, they didn't sound that way at all. So probably it just comes from, the more you sing, the more control you have."

Master and Everyone may be smooth, but it is not the kind of record that can be cracked with one listen. At first blush, "Ain't You Wealthy, Ain't You Wise?" comes off as almost hymn-like, a sweet-sounding paean to love with warm harmonies and understated delivery: "Ain't you wealthy/Ain't you wise/Ain't you made to give to me/Ain't it all good/Enough to sing?" But in typical contrarian fashion, Oldham throws in one last line that negates all the warmth that came before, a sudden knife thrust that slides in smooth and cold after a series of tender, petting strokes: "It's a wondrous day to see/The joy I hold in me/While I leave."

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