Prince of Darkness
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.
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 Master is 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."
Still, the songs are generally more cozy than those Oldham usually writes. "Joy and Jubilee" is so modest and unassuming that it seems almost a dirge of happiness, and "Wolf Among Wolves" is a Leonard Cohen-like love song that speaks both to Oldham's desire for love and his inability to accept it in its standard form: "She loves a soul/That I've never been/A dog among dogs/A man among men/Why can't I be loved as what I am?/A wolf among wolves/And not as a man?"
Many of Master's songs are swaddled in a velvety wrap, partially a result of the addition of singer Marty Slayton, a Nashville veteran who's toured with Reba McEntire, George Strait and Lee Ann Womack. Slayton's voice, eerily similar to a late-'60s, Fairport Convention-era Sandy Denny, goes well with Oldham's understated quaver.
"It was amazing," Oldham says. "When she was in there, I was just fucking freaking out because it was so great. She's a beautiful woman, for one, and then, just...her voice. It was the first time I've ever talked to a professional singer. It was just second nature to her. She would sing along, then I could describe to her how to change it, and then we would push 'record' and she would change it that way. It was just like, 'Oh, my God! This is how life should be!' When our voices are together like that, it's like looking at the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and you're looking at a picture of a woman, then all of a sudden you're looking at a picture of the two of you together: How'd that happen?"
Though he will wax effusive about Slayton and other musicians, it's difficult to get Oldham to say more than a few words about his own music. Despite his stated need for communication, he's developed a reputation for being combative with the press, having reportedly given "interviews" in which his responses were completely unrelated to the questions asked -- or even to reality. Monosyllabic grunts pepper his conversation, and you sense that he'd rather allow the plainspoken honesty of his songs to speak for themselves, contradictions and all.
"Sort of in defense and criticism of the music press, they don't have room to enjoy music in their head, because they have to think about it all the time in this critical way," Oldham says. "They sort of have to form an opinion because they can't feel free to sort of have feelings about it. And that's not the way you listen to music. You're supposed to either turn it off if you want to, or you turn it on if you want to. But if you have to write about it, you have to turn it on, and you have to have something to say about it.
"And that's going to fuck with your emotions," he continues, "just like if you were a prostitute and you were trying to have a normal sex life with your partner: You can't do it."
Ultimately, Oldham does his communicating through music -- however ambiguous, obtuse or frustratingly inconsistent it may come across to the listener. After all, a musician not being appreciated, or understood, in his time is an old tradition. In the meantime, he's on to other pursuits, both real and imagined.
"My dream would be to be able to continue to make records and have Elton John cover a song and have nobody connect the two things at all, except for Elton and [John songwriter] Bernie Taupin. Bernie could be like, 'Fucking Elton! Wasn't I providing you with good enough material?'"
Seriously, though. What does the shape-shifting, ever-morphing musician hope he's communicated while following his often bleak muse?
"I always just figure that -- not using an American presidential election as an example, but the ballots won't all be in until after we're all dead and gone, in terms of defining how many people will eventually get something out of the music, or not, and what kind of people they are."
Spoken like a true Prince.
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