Bonnie Prince Billy
Photo: Valgeir Sigurdsson / Drag City

Bonnie “Prince” Billy Gets Domestic on ‘Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You’

Bonnie “Prince” Billy suggests the strangeness of life comes in how people silently consent to mainstream conformism like marriage without revision or reinvention.

Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You
Bonnie "Prince" Billy
Drag City
11 August 2023

It is interesting to think about how Palace Brothers, the first project Will Oldham fronted, was once perceived as a successor to the legendary post-rock band Slint. Oldham grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and had attended the progressive J. Graham Brown School with Britt Walford and Brian McMahan, who were key members of Slint along with David Pajo and Todd Brashear. As recounted in the documentary film Breadcrumb Trail (2014), directed by Lance Bangs, the idea circulated that Oldham might join Slint. Instead, his involvement was limited to taking the iconic photograph gracing the album cover of Spiderland (1991). 

Nonetheless, these origins in the Louisville underground eventually coalesced in Palace Brothers’ debut There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You (1993), a minimalist hootnanny with a barebones kitchen table production that Alan Lomax might have appreciated. McMahan, Walford, and Brashear performed on the album. Ambitions seemed low. To record an album at all appeared both miraculous and ordinary. Had nothing else been pursued, a childhood mission had been accomplished. 

Yet, something special happened. Acoustic in approach, There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You sounds nothing like Slint, but it retains a similar tonal quality, both mysterious and unsettling. It is dark even in its brighter moments. Songs like “Idle Hands Are the Devil’s Playthings” and “O Lord Are You in Need?” underline an Old Testament worldview while inhabiting an imagined William Faulkner-esque landscape. In retrospect, Oldham and his accomplished friends can be understood as making the argument that post-rock, punk, and metal had affinities with the musical traditions of the “old, weird America”, as Greil Marcus once put it in describing The Basement Tapes (1975) of Bob Dylan and the Band.

This gothic strangeness was expanded through a succession of remarkable albums – Days in the Wake (1994), Viva Last Blues (1995), Arise Therefore (1996), and Joya (1997) – each of which experimented with new elements, whether electric guitars, piano, Moog synthesizers, or a drum machine. Lyrical references to French (“Meaulnes”) and Russian (“Pushkin”) literature further added to Oldham’s enigmatic persona. He cut a wandering troubadour figure whose sense of rebellion approximated that of Rimbaud, conveying an elusive ambiguity enhanced by his peripatetic acting career. As a teenager, he had a memorable role as a child preacher in Matewan (1987), directed by John Sayles. He later acted in art films like Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). 

This recurrent roleplaying perhaps explains the different names he performed under – Palace Brothers, Palace Music, Will Oldham, and eventually Bonnie “Prince” Billy, starting in 1999. That year, he released I See a Darkness, a breakthrough album that revealed a stronger voice and lyrical clarity. Oldham’s vocals have always been his most distinctive feature. Like a boy whose voice was changing, his early singing could consist of yelps, wails, cracks, and warbles. His work on I See a Darkness and after largely dispensed with this approach, resulting in LPs that have been increasingly confident if also, admittedly, less strange.

Oldham’s new album, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, is another dispatch in a prolific career with no sign of slowing down. Consisting of 12 songs at 46 minutes, it is firmly situated within his mid-career oeuvre alongside LPs like Master and Everyone (2003) and The Letting Go (2006). Accompanying him are a group of local musicians, a number of whom are music teachers from the Louisville area. Gone are the days of Slint. Furthermore, Oldham has married and become a father during the past five years. If there is a resident theme to the LP, it regards the pleasures and constraints of domestic life.

“Change is a constant, and so I am constantly changing,” Oldham sings on the opening track “Like It or Not”. This line could be taken as a passing Zen credo that explains his journey as a songwriter. However, as the title suggests, the song is slightly threatening, dispensing dogmatic convictions and idle threats at different moments, despite the warmth of an acoustic guitar, violin, and a female backing vocal. When it becomes clear that this track is about tensions in a relationship (“Say goodbye to friends and family / You’re coming with me / Like it or not”), it creeps you out. Oldham hasn’t lost his touch for plumbing the sickness of the human soul.

Though it sets a certain tone, this initial perspective does not overwhelm Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You. A sense of happiness through family is pervasive. “Bananas” has beautiful harmonies that allude to his work on Wolf of the Cosmos (2017), an album that faithfully covered Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos (2007) by the Norwegian singer Susanna. This song is a tribute to warm kisses, fitting together, and knowing answers to life’s questions. “Rise and Rule (She Was Born in Honolulu)” is an homage to Oldham’s mother. Meanwhile, “Kentucky Is Water” imparts the lines “Usually I can be found with my family / Courageous and careful and loving our now and wow.”

Domestic contentment is never permanent, though. Violence can draw near. In “Crazy Blue Bells”, Oldham sings, “My hand on my mother’s hand, and her hand on my daughter’s / My daughter’s hand on the hand of who will lead us into slaughter.” Another pair of tracks take an allegorical approach. “Willow, Pine and Oak” is about trees and, by implication, ideas of settlement, growth, stability, and love. However, the following, “Trees of Hell”, is a ballad about vengeful trees taking back what humans have stolen from them. “One tree ripped my stomach out,” Oldham describes, “One branch tore my eyes out.” Richard Powers, author of The Overstory (2018), might appreciate these sentiments.

Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You is ultimately a record of arguments and counterarguments drawn from wisdom earned through marriage, not through wanderlust as in Oldham’s past. “I am singing destruction, I’m happy today,” he says in “Like It or Not”, disclosing an approach of holding two opposing thoughts simultaneously. Backing female vocals frequently enhance the familial quality of this LP, which are in turn counterbalanced by lines like “The end of the world isn’t going away.” Indeed, the pleasantness of the music often stands in contrast with the lyrics, unlike his earlier recordings, where they tended to overlap.

“Everyone walks to a certain point, then turns around” is the first line of Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You. “How far you go just depends on the time that you’ve got.” Oldham may be messaging a set of artistic limits, perhaps even a growing sense of his mortality. It may also relate to the life restraints we willingly succumb to. This record isn’t about the old, weird America but is partly about the normie, suburban America that pervades places like Louisville and our present more generally. 

In this, Oldham is reaching for something novel. Maybe the strangeness of life doesn’t come through the spooky energy of 3:00am reveries and lo-fi, minor-key notes but in how people silently consent to mainstream conformism like marriage or family without revision or reinvention. Oldham seems intent on revealing and talking about secrets like this. 

The title Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You appears to be a paraphrase of a line from the controversial Gospel of Thomas (“If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you”), an axiom that insinuates our greatest existential threat is ourselves. The final track is about an active volcano in Mexico. Interpret that as you may.

Listen to this album with a hand on your heart. But also take it as a warning.

RATING 8 / 10