In his own way, Will Oldham‘s as inscrutable as anyone in music. His many name changes (Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Palace Songs, Will Oldham, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, etc.) would seem to point to stylistic shifts, or shifts in priority or subject matter. But as far as I can tell, he’s pretty much stayed the same, with the name changes apparently little more than his capricious sense of humor or some signifier that only he understands. All in all, despite improving recording techniques, and improvements in Oldham’s own craft, he seems to have pretty much stayed the course he set for himself long ago.
How, then, to take his latest effort? Sings Greatest Palace Music takes some of his Palace phase’s highlights and wraps them in slick, session-pro Nashville backing—surely an idea that’ll send some diehard fans running, hands clapped over their bleeding ears, to their tattered copies of There Is No One What Will Take Care of You. Probably before they’ve even heard the results.
It might not be a bad response. While Sings Greatest Palace Music isn’t even close to wretched (it’s actually surprisingly good in spots), it puts the listener in that uneasy position where the vague and shifting line between smirking joke ends and serious reinterpretation begins. The rolling piano that opens “I Send My Love to You”, for example, makes you want to laugh out loud, but Oldham sings it completely straight. Never mind that most of Sings Greatest Palace Music finds him sounding like Lyle Lovett, there’s no denying the heart that still runs through Oldham’s vocals.
All of the Palace records are represented here (barring 7” singles, the odd EP, etc.), with Viva Last Blues and Days in the Wake bearing the lion’s share of the burden. The Viva Last Blues material seems to retain the closest links between old and new. The funky, slinky vibe of “More Brother Rides”, for example, gains an ominous, somber feel, with really nice interplay between Oldham’s vocal cadence and slithery acoustic guitar—but the overall purpose seems the same. The woozy, faltering pace of “Viva Ultra” now boasts a tear-in-your-beer violin intro before dropping away to plaintive piano and violin accompaniment. The dirty guitar that opens the reworked “New Partner” really isn’t such a far cry from the gentle waltz that typifies the original (and the horns that close out the new version are especially nice).
The Days in the Wake material feels more mutated, perhaps due to that original album’s intimate, lonely bedroom vibe. “Pushkin” gains full gospel backing vocals, while “I Send My Love to You” barrels along like a cross between the aforementioned Lovett and Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” (arguably the most drastic reimagining to be found on Sings Greatest Palace Music. And “I Am a Cinematographer”? Well, “blasphemy” probably won’t be a strong enough word for some folks when they hear the spry, Western swing arrangement that Oldham applies to one of his signature tunes.
And so it also goes through songs from There is No One What Will Take Care of You, Mountain, and Arise, Therefore, Oldham’s changes seeming to reject wholesale the moods that those records so carefully evoked. That’s where the problem of interpretation comes in, though. You hear the arrangements, sometimes sickly sweet, always with that crack Nashville precision that can leech the life out of pretty much anything, and you start to dismiss the whole affair. Then you hear Oldham start in on the lyrics. He’s singing in a lower register, avoiding those cracked notes that always seemed to summon levels of both pain and joy that the lyrics only hinted at, but you can’t detect a drop of insincerity in his voice. To hear him sing the songs, you can tell he still means them.
Is Oldham forcing the issue that the music is just a trapping, that the words are what’s important, that his lauded lo-fi indie leanings were no more valid than the sawdust-kicking arrangements of this new approach? Or is he just having a hoot, an impish smile hidden under that mountain man beard as he watches the crowd clear? Heck, the CD itself bears the silhouette of a breakdancer; what are you supposed to do with that? We’re certainly not in 12 Golden Country Greats Ween territory here, but there’s definitely a perverse humor at work, for all the emotion that still lingers in Oldham’s raspy-but-slightly-honeyed new vocal approach.
But isn’t that about right for Oldham? To wrap another riddle in the folds of enigma and mystique that he already offers? He’s often maintained, in his infrequent but often-terse interviews, that he’s in the music—that anyone who wants to find him should start looking there. With Sings Greatest Palace Music, though, he really forces you to address just what you’re trying to get out of his music, and the assumptions that you bring to a Bonnie “Prince” Billy record. As to whether it’s good or not? That’s hard to say; it’s certainly kinda fun once you get your eyebrows to lower from their state of shock. All I can say is that, for all its intriguing choices, Sings Greatest Palace Music does feel like a bit of a goof, and it certainly won’t have me trading my Palace/Palace Brothers/Palace Music CDs in at the local CD store.