The cover of Beware, which clearly takes after the cover for Neil Young’s 1975 album Tonight’s the Night, might perfectly sum up Will Oldham’s time recording under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker. Oldham’s new collection takes on a loose-country feel that has more than a passing resemblance to Young’s album. It might lack the rock songs Young peppered Tonight’s the Night with, but Beware contains an unmoored, searching feeling. One that clearly sounds like Oldham is trying to be emotive, revealing and over-the-top on the record.
That’s the trouble with Bonnie “Prince” Billy. In 1975, Neil Young reeled with the pain of dead friends and drug use. He wasn’t trying to make that record sound unsettled; he was a man unsettled himself. Young was broken, so he couldn’t make a cohesive, pleasant-sounding record. But here, on Beware, all the streched-out country sound, the loose melodies and built-up musical theatrics are thought out. This album is disheveled, but it is calculated to be that way. Its grand sweep of sound might initially sound compelling, but nothing will keep you there. The melodies break down, and the lyrics ramble. Listeners don’t get close enough to the emotions behind the songs to feel a true connection to them.
Admittedly, a few brilliant moments can be found on Beware. In these times, Oldham reminds how good he can be—he does it much more consistently on earlier “Prince” albums like I See a Darkness and Master and Everyone—and his persona becomes much more bearable. Because, well, it’s all about the song. When he gives us the keening balladry of “I Won’t Ask Again”, you forget the artifice he attempts to construct. The backing vocals mesh perfectly with his warble, instead of overwhelming it, and the gliding violin accents the understated-guitar work nicely.
“Death Final” attests as the kind of mannered folk Oldham has always done well. Perhaps the strict melodic structure to songs like this suits him best, since he has little room in the track to wander away from what the music does. Its twanging guitars fill out the song with a swaying thickness. Later on in the record, “I Am Goodbye” gives us Beware‘s best track. The song’s country romp, complete with deep-in-the-bayou guitars, lets us get the closest to Oldham. He is pretty unapologetic about the title’s claim, about his inability to stick around, but he at least seems genuine about his selfish nature, his wanderlust. It’s one of few moments on the album that even remotely ring true.
The rest of Beware builds on a country sound that goes nowhere, and lyrics that often prove flabby with lazy phrasing, impenetrably insular and navel gazing, or both. The pedal steel and layered acoustic guitars sound nice, but Oldham rambles amelodically over them. “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” comes close to pulling off a bittersweet waltz with a nice chorus, but the verses are too unwieldy to work. “There is Something I Have to Say”, a barely-there ballad, sounds like a few pieces of a song never sewn together. You can feel him shooting for a quiet confessional, but the space in the song isn’t pregnant with any feeling. When he claims, “I feel deserving of love,” it not only rings false, but it sounds almost crass in its self-involvement.
When Oldham isn’t rambling his songs away from melody and his audience, he pumps them up with unnecessary melodrama. The overreaching backing vocals on “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” make the song sound puffed up and silly, rather than emotive. The thundering drums in the background of songs like “My Life’s Work” and “Heart’s Arms” make the songs sound more pretentiously lofty than they already are. While songs like “Afraid Ain’t Me” show off Oldham’s vocal range, his full-throated singing doesn’t give us any more feeling than his cracked mumble does. It fittingly finishes the record with a cloying flute solo.
In all of these cases Oldham gets away from his strengths. With the exception of his thundering work with Matt Sweeney on Superwolf, Oldham appears his best understated. His folk songs can be funny and personal and unnerving and sometimes brilliant. But he almost always gets away from that on Beware. A few songs, like “Without Word, You Have Nothing” and “You Don’t Love Me” walk the line between the excellent country sound of the album’s highlights and its more pompous-sounding messes. But for every success on Beware, no matter how slight, a complete failure follows. All this melodramatic size and unfocused rambling would be a little easier to take if it were in service of Oldham’s vision, if it were to let us in on something about him as a feeling, thinking person of the world. Instead, this sound is in service of his persona, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and that is just not enough to make this work. So Oldham may look thoughtful and searching on the black cover, mining the darkness for some meaning, but that’s all he’s doing. Looking like he’s searching. Beware only sounds like loose, organic country, when really it proves just another contrived piece to the Bonnie “Prince” Billy brand.