[1 November 2012]
Is there such thing as too much Will Oldham?
Your answer likely hinges on your devotion to all things Oldham. As an artist who has spent his career being reclusive both artistically and personally, Oldham hollowed out his very own path to success, not just by playing by his own rules, but by virtually creating his own game. He refused band monikers early on, opting instead to use some variation of Palace, before finally settling on Bonnie “Prince” Billy—his self-made musical persona with his own “genetic code”, as Oldham notes. Oldham tours sporadically but releases albums with startling frequency, each one invoking the most minor of stylistic changes, but remaining consistently extraordinary.
But you knew all that, I’m sure. And context is one thing Oldham (purposefully, it seems) avoids. After all, one does not venture into the realm of Will Oldham without having a dedicated fanaticism to his music, and by extension, the man. Most friends of mine either have all of his work, or a single album—the straddlers are few. And I can’t see the straddlers rushing to get their hands on a copy of Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a lengthy series of interviews between Oldham and his friend and colleague Alan Licht. Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy is for those with a vested interest in all things Bonnie and beyond.
Reading Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy provides a certain feeling that the curtain is getting pulled back to reveal the Wizard. But in true Oldham fashion, it’s possible to devour the book in one or two sittings and still feel as if you have no further grasp on the man than when you first began. It’s a long, rambling text that covers Oldham’s early beginnings in Louisville, Kentucky, his foray into film acting, and, of course, the multitudes of music he’s created. Yet, it feels astonishingly incomplete at times, even at a packed 343 pages.
Oldham is full of contradictions, slippery statements, and philosophical musings. His divergent attitudes toward live shows seem to be a recurring topic, as he makes clear that live shows are not his favorite thing to be a part of—attending them or performing them—but he simultaneously appreciates the theatricality of a musician such as R. Kelly, and seems consciously aware of his own role as a performer. It’s a struggle he begrudgingly accepts at times, and dismisses at other times, much like his approach to making records: “Making records is commerce, and it’s about fooling yourself as a writer and a performer and fooling the audience into not thinking about it an accepting it.” And then, to drive the point home, Oldham draws a wicked simile: “It like when you walk down the street and say, ‘Look at that girl’s ass, it’s so great.’ You’re also ignoring the fact that she farts shit out of that ass. It’s the same kind of thing.”
If Oldham seems a bit unsavory at times, it’s because he has no interest in mincing words or pretending to be anything other than equal parts sacred and profane, much like his music. After all, Oldham’s music could easily double as songs to play in church, or they could fuel Saturday night stoner sessions.
As blunt as Oldham is about some ideas, others he’s obsessively guarded about, like the names and credits on his early albums with Palace: “I think for those of us who make records, it’s our business how we put it together. Same with a book… there’s an army of people involved with the production of each book… somehow it doesn’t matter to us that any of that information is never publicly readily available, yet we want that on records.” It’s a point of artistic fairness for Oldham, it seems, as he argues later for categorizing records by their title instead of by artist, as movies are.
The most intriguing revelations in Will Oldham on Bonnie “Prince” Billy are the most mundane ones, oddly enough. When Oldham waxes philosophical or discusses his approach or influence to songwriting, it’s never as exciting as when discusses the making of certain records: the Steve Albini sessions that created Arise Therefore, the Nashville studio magic of Bonnie “Prince” Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, how Master and Everyone was released due in part to PJ Harvey, the reissuing of Beware. It’s these micro anecdotes that ultimately provide a small window into Oldham’s mind—which may be plenty to see. By looking at the creation of Oldham’s body of work we get a better sense of what he values and, via negativa, what he doesn’t.
Much of the success and readability of Will Oldham is due to Alan Licht, who asks all the right questions and keeps the conversations moving in new directions. It doesn’t hurt that Oldham clearly feels comfortable discussing all topics at length with Licht; otherwise we may never have seen a book of this caliber. And, as an added bonus, Licht has compiled an extensive and obligatory discography of Oldham’s work in all its formats. Its presence alone might be worth the price of admission.
Oldham, to me, is the embodiment of Walt Whitman’s quote: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Oldham is a study in contradiction, but also a study in multitudes. Why he chose to participate in a book of this order now, after he has spent so much time invested in anonymity and obliqueness, is one such mystery. But it’s a mystery that should keep Oldham’s fans slaked, at least until he confounds us again.