Will Oldham has been fucking with fans’ perception of him for the past decade. Oldham, the Kentuckian folk/country musician behind the Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker — as well as the Palace franchise — mixes the arcane poetry and melody of old-time Appalachian music and humanizing, vulgar frivolity so well that it’s difficult to take him seriously. After all, serious artists don’t mix jaw-droppers like “Lift it up / Above the light / ’Twas the wonder of my life” with “Napoleon Dynamite” goof like “And the creature form of superwolf / Will meet you eye-to-eye” in the same song, let alone right frickin’ next to each other. Serious artists don’t grow Allen Ginsberg beards and dress in full-bodied, hot-pink jumpsuits — as Oldham did during a performance at the Detroit Institute of Arts last spring — do they? This arcane mix of spiritual folk and wordly humor is the paradox on which Oldham has built his career and a cult following.
On Superwolf, Oldham teams up with indie-rock veteran Matt Sweeney, who was last seen gigging with Billy Corgan’s doomed-from-the-moment-it-was-named Zwan project (he held a more respectable post in overlooked mid-’90s rockers Chavez). Oldham handles all of the vocals, and while Sweeney is credited with “music,” there’s no doubt that some of Oldham’s powdery acoustic pickings made their way into the writing process. It’ll be a great injustice if Sweeney’s part in this project goes overlooked, however, as Superwolf contains a spark that was missing from Oldham’s last offering, the flowery Master and Everyone.
If nothing else, Sweeney’s sticky electric arpeggios provide a more interesting bed for Oldham to lay his old-world tenor onto. The music still wouldn’t break a pane of glass moving at full speed — no one bothers to thwack a drum or vibrate a bass string for the majority of the album’s 44-minute runtime — but Oldham sounds inspired again, moving away from the placid folk mush of Master. His voice is liquid here, rolling in and out of the descending guitar lines of “Blood Embrace” and caressing the soft distortion of “Lift Us Up.”
Sweeney’s star turn comes on the album’s first song, “My Home is the Sea.” He lights up his amplifier, splitting the track down the middle with a layered, ringing guitar riff. Elsewhere, Oldham turns in a beautiful, whimsical lyric on “Bed is for Sleeping” and mashes hearts on “Rudy Foolish,” Oldham’s first spine-chillingly great hymn in years.
Ultimately, who wrote what on this album will be the type of detail lost to history, as Sweeney proves himself amply capable of inspiring the inscrutable Oldham. For an artist considered essential in some circles, Oldham’s catalog is surprisingly inconsistent — Superwolf is his first great record since 1999’s all-world I See a Darkness. Oldham is equally capable of eroticism, humor and knee-buckling sincerity; at his best, he can do all three in the space of a few couplets. Superwolf embraces his contradictions, and Sweeney’s guitar reminds that while we’ll probably never solve Oldham’s puzzles, looking for clues is half the sadistic fun.
Music Review: 4 out of 5 stars