Bonnie “Prince” Billy
3 out of 5 stars
Sneaking suspicions abound: Will Oldham could be a machine — some sort of emotive, scraggly-bearded, hipster-built robot assembled to write songs with maximum efficiency.
Since reinventing his musical career under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy in 1999, Oldham has been able to outdo even the likes of Ryan Adams in terms of sheer output with over 11 albums in the last eight years. He has become (more or less) the Lil Wayne of Kentuckian folk-rock. Even more impressively, he’s maintained a hardy resistance to any of the half-assedness that always besets the hyper-prolific. Sometimes, it’s more comfortable to label Oldham-type anomalies “inhuman” and wait for a crash.
Even still, the emotional power and musical nuance in any “Prince” Billy album is evidence that he’s all human. Unsurprisingly, his newest effort Beware is full of lyrical proof. Oldham’s broad, thoughtful observations affirm he’s more aware than most — on “You Can’t Hurt Me Now,” he remarks “I know everyone has the happiness I have / That’s the thing about happiness you can hold.”
A large part of Beware’s success lies in Oldham’s ability to engage listeners from all angles, like when he moves effortlessly from a couplet-dropping sage in “You Can’t Hurt Me Now” to a jocular, self-revealing buddy in the ultimately sad “You Don’t Love Me.” In the latter, he playfully vents about a loveless relationship: “You say you like my eyes only or just the way I giggle / Sometimes you like the smell of me or how my belly jiggles / But you don’t love me.” The delivery changes but the sincerity is constant.
Musically, there’s nothing too flashy about Beware — but with “Prince” Billy releases, there never has to be. The organic production techniques and stripped-down arrangements act on their own to enhance the poignant heart-on-sleeve aesthetic. “There Is Something I Have to Say” gets down to the bare essentials with just Oldham’s signature croon and a lone guitar. Despite the lack of frills, it’s hard not to get caught up in the track’s affecting relationship elegy. Even when strings, lap-steel guitar or percussion pop up in the mix (as they often do), the general musical ambiance remains subdued. In Beware, restraint is a powerful and oft-employed tool.
The country ballad “My Life’s Work” allows Oldham to reveal that his usually understated voice has an almost diva-like vigor. The track is slow to build, but when the song bursts from laid-back verse to aching chorus, any doubts about Oldham’s vocal strength are erased.
Still, truly transcendent moments like that are all too rare. There are several spots where some pizazz is sorely needed. The heartfelt yet monotonous “Heart’s Arms” evokes the pace and frustration of wading through quicksand. “I Don’t Belong to Anyone” is a plain bore that mainly rests on a melody lifted from “Que Sera, Sera.” If not for the overall lyrical eloquence, listening to a lot of Beware would be a trying experience.
Maybe coming a bit too late, the finale “Afraid Ain’t Me” is arguably the album’s strongest track. With exotic woodwinds and Latin-esque percussion, it’s a pleasantly surprising turn for the largely country-western album. The change of pace is seamless and effective, and it’s a little confusing why Oldham didn’t venture off the beaten path a little more on his newest effort. He’s clearly gifted enough to do so.
Beware is a solid release but generally lacks the creative spark to compete with the best of “Prince” Billy’s catalog. It’s not quite a misstep, but certainly a slight malfunction. Oldham might be in need of a recharge.