“Without us / The song is nothing”, sings Will Oldham in “The Sounds Are Always Begging”. And although the art of interpretation can potentially make or break a tune, a good one can certainly stand on its own. No matter how far down you strip a song, its quality should not be diminished. The Wonder Show of the World, the latest under Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, is mostly a quiet and skeletal affair offering up only guitar chords, vocal harmonies, and occasionally some lead guitar work courtesy of Emmet Kelly. Fans of Oldham’s less-is-more-approach to his own style of dark and twisted indie-folk have probably been bracing themselves for an album like this for a while. So it’s no revelation that the fans are well served here. But is The Wonder Show of the World worth any investment from the casual observer who is likely to be intimidated by Will Oldham’s enormous discography? Absolutely.
Billed as a collaboration between Bonnie “Prince” Billy and the Cairo Gang, this new album has the feeling of just a handful of friends strumming along one another inside an empty coffee shop. The Cairo Gang have supported Bonnie “Prince” Billy on three previous albums, so the musical rapport is already there. These forged musical paths have helped pave the way for warmth, a term that can be tossed around liberally when describing an album such as The Wonder Show of the World. You could even say that the billowing vocal harmonies of “Someone Coming Through” come comfortably close to Crosby, Still & Nash.
Oldham’s approach to recording has not changed. He still probably thinks that refinement is something for the big leaguers, not wanting to sacrifice his interpretations in service for a flawless take. It’s all the sort of rag-tag hit-and-run studio sessions that have characterized his other works; skewed timing, a slight harmonic mishap, a slurred consonant, and telling his friends on “Go Folks, Go” “Now here’s the chorus,” just to name a few. It would all be distracting if the songs weren’t any good. Fortunately, these songs are just as good as anything Oldham has proved himself capable of in the past.
He continues to mine the blacker side of Americana. Storm clouds loom over “Troublesome Houses” when he tells us that his love could “taste trouble on my mouth”. The aforementioned standout track “The Sounds Are Always Begging” tells the tale of a family gone mad while learning the virtues of music and melody. And a song title like “Teach Me to Bear You,” well, can it get more heavy-handed than that?
Other Bonnie “Prince” Billy albums such as Ease Down the Road and I See a Darkness are probably more likely to leave a stronger first impression to the Will Oldham newcomer. But The Wonder Show of the World is the kind of album that rewards persistence. Sure, it may not register the first few times you hear it. With most songs lacking percussion, you may think it’s barely there. But should you choose to stick with it, it will unfold for you about as naturally as all good music should. It’s the kind of stuff that will surely secure a legacy. “Kids / I hope in years to come / I will be strapped to the movement of time / In such a way / That this still makes sense”, is the last line sung on the album, but I don’t think he has anything to worry about.