Bonnie "Prince" Billy: Wolfroy Goes to Town
Will Oldham’s latest album is a scaled back set where his voice and guitar seem to search out sticking melodies yet tends to find them in the striking moments when he lets his band loose.
With Wolfroy Goes to Town, Bonnie “Prince” Billy has scaled back from his last few full length releases. Lie Down in the Light, from 2008, reached ecstatic heights. Will Oldham’s voice peak in strength and the songs had an exuberance that could convert any remaining doubters (were there any?) to ecstatic recognition. Last year’s Wonder Show of the World, a collaboration with the Cairo Gang—basically the guitarist, Emmet Kelly, who also contributed to Lie Down and who adds his nuanced playing to the new album—continued in the same bright, sunny vein, though perhaps not mounting to the same glorious horizon. Wolfroy, too, is bright in its production. The vocals are loud and Oldham’s voice continues to strengthen, but the songs themselves are sparser, recalling in their quietness the darker feel of his first few albums under the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker, Master and Everyone, Ease Down the Road and I See a Darkness -- albums that die hard fans still would proclaim Oldham’s masterpieces.
The songs on Wolfroy are slow, clearly dictated by Oldham’s voice and lyrics. The album sounds almost like an exercise in gluing together the dominant tropes of Americana, folk and country. “We are Unhappy” is a roomy meditation on the old country cliché line, “Nothing is better/nothing is best.” Each phrase he sings matches itself to a strum of the guitar and begs you to wait in the momentary gap of silence for a reply. Oldham is in no hurry. He’s a troubadour, sure of himself, willing to take his time. However, in this certainty what is sacrificed are the peaks of incontrovertible melodic prowess. Almost no song stands out. All 10 songs blend together in a folky ambiance.
The laid-back feel of the songs, however, do not entirely give up hooks. Though Oldham appears here as a master singer-songwriter, there is a definite group feel to the album. The photo on the back cover shows the ensemble in performance and perhaps the quietude of the album bespeaks the intimacy of a live performance. Oldham rounds out his genius by giving room to the other musicians. On every song, he pairs his voice, most notably with Angel Olsen’s classic country female duet duties. She would be the Emmylou Harris to Oldham’s Gram Parsons, if Oldham’s levelheadedness relegated him to the mellow mastery of modern country that Parsons came to define. Olsen gets a strange spotlight on “Time to Be Clear”, where the song almost seems to end, and you hear her humming, as if to herself, working in some other room, only offset by a vibrating mandolin here and there. On “New Whaling”, she sings a haunting round after every line that fortifies Oldham’s cracking and bearded plaints. And on the punchy singalong “Quail and Dumplings”, she gets a strong lead moment, belting out “Fuck birds in the bushes / let’s take them in the air,” echoed by Kelly’s miniscule rockabilly guitar solo.
For my taste, the album’s peaks are when Kelly’s electric guitar punches the songs up from their baseline of folky comfort to nearly rock band proportions. The opener, “No Match”, which has the slow boom-chicka-boom rhythm of a Johnny Cash song, is a high point as its fragility is consistently strung upon Kelly’s guitar, sliding and doubling the melody with a sharp and crackling yet somehow still understated sound. On other songs, there are merely glimpses of this ecstatic coming-together of the group: “New Tibet”, an apparently political song that opens with the intriguing yet in no way anomalously sexual line, “As boys we fucked each other / as men we lie and smile,” pulls itself together for a short moment of protest that recalls the fervor of ‘60s San Francisco psychedelia and the supergroup family feeling of ‘70s LA.
Wolfroy is certainly not the best Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, but it provides an interesting integration of his latest endeavors, which have gained him new territory beyond introspective indie folk freak status, with his earliest attempts that so clearly defined his voice. The album grows on you. The lack of foreground melody may be off-putting, but there is a safety and surety in the performance, a blend of his familiar croak with his new-found warmth, rounded out in the right moments with help from friends. That is to say, Oldham works well with others. And if this album sounds often like castoffs from recent albums, it also provides a reprieve, a moment of meditation that gives us a look at where Oldham is and where he has been.