Will Oldham’s twisted take on American roots music has never wavered in its. consistent examination of death, sex and the human underbelly. He writes songs filled with haunting imagery and language more often found in poetic verse than popular song: “The men are wailing toothless / The ladies ghostly pout / And they shout / Our shoes are wet.” But on his latest release, The Letting Go, Oldham gets a bit soft on us: he blends his doom-riddled motif with a few indulgent helpings of strings and syrupy ballads.
From the opening swells of “Love Comes to Me,” it’s clear that we’re dealing with Greatest Palace-era Oldham complete with crisp, clutter-free production and crooning vocals – a sound that contrasts with his more overtly ramshackle recordings like Viva Last Blues or 1999’s morbid masterpiece, I See A Darkness. A lush string arrangement compliments both Oldham’s voice and that of accompanist Dawn McCarthy, whose presence on this record is a warm and spiritual addition to the Bonnie “Prince” Billy sound.
“Wai” feels as if it could have been a b-side from I See a Darkness, opening with lyrics as chilling as Oldham can muster: “The lameness of an unborn child / The tidiness of cry / The only way I’m leaving here / Is curling up and die.” The song plays out like an emotionally disturbed lullaby, ornamented with rumbling floor toms and the occasional chime of a glockenspiel. Its fatalistic tone resonates throughout the album, but The Letting Go is also defined by a number of eloquently melodic folk songs.
The sound of “Cold and Wet” is muffled and nostalgic, as the vocals and guitars had been channeled from a cracked 1930s radio recording. The mood is playful, but the lyrics continue to bite: “Introduce to every soul a drink made of tears / Hear them bicker / Watch them die impaled on balsa spears.” Oldham’s singing is at its best on tracks like these; he pushes his limited range to its limits and lets his voice crack carelessly.
“Big Friday” is an easygoing folksong playing to the strengths of producer Valgeir Sigurdsson, who employs a beautiful mix of vocal harmonies, droning electronics, glass percussion and a majestic electric-keyboard. Like many of the other standout tracks, it conjures the feeling that this is what Greatest Palace Music should have sounded like: It compliments challenging songs with hi-fi studio production.
The Letting Go falls flat on its more pedestrian rockers. “Cursed Sleep” and “The Seedling” are bloated and, lyrics aside, somewhat generic. For other artists, this type of Grammy-lite folk rock is forgivable, but not for Oldham. He’s the crowned prince of indie folk, a man who once wrote about fucking a mountain. There is no need for him to entertain thoughts of a small gold-plated statue and sipping champagne coolies with Celine Dion.
The Letting Go has a number of standout moments, but it’s marred in its consistency by a few gaudy tracks. He’s an artist who’s made his name by crafting a stellar catalogue of difficult and insightful folk songs, but Will Oldham continues to frustrate in his tendency to make mistakes in the realm of album sequencing and consistency.
3 and a half stars out of 5