Dusted Reviews

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Sings Greatest Palace Music

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Album: Sings Greatest Palace Music

Label: Drag City

Review date: May. 6, 2004

Greatest Palace Music is an album devised to leave Will Oldham’s admirers scratching their heads, and it doesn’t disappoint. Much more confounding, ugly, and difficult than one might expect, the record is a subtly deconstructive affair, smooth but strange, making these songs feel like actual covers, instead of Oldham’s own.

Oldham’s recent work has gravitated towards an emotionally bare, intimate warmth, culminating in last year’s Master And Everyone, a luminous record that often featured nothing more than Oldham’s resonant voice and a gently plucked guitar. His earlier work under the various monikers of Palace brushed with vulnerability, but never without veil. Behind shocking imagery and awkward phrasing, Oldham continually eschewed verisimilitude, flaunting his role as performer, and subsequently, ours as audience.

For, despite the beauty of many of Oldham’s songs, things were always more complicated than they seemed. His conversion to Bonnie "Prince" Billy in 1998 appeared a move toward translucency, but some deemed it the exact opposite, as if Oldham was further subjugating a genre rooted in honesty. To some extent, this guarded skepticism is remarkable, since his songs mostly elude such an interpretation. “I Am A Cinematographer” and “New Partner” are poetic and moving; nonetheless, something in the oddness of their wordplay leads the listener down unfamiliar paths, to places devoid of genre.

This is perhaps why Greatest Palace Music has rankled so many Oldhamites. The production on this record foregrounds big emotions, ensemble playing, and a firm understanding of Nashville’s country music history. What first shocks is the nostalgic, truly Country feel of the album. Pedal steel is all over the place, along with tinkly piano and baritone harmonies. Many songs are even unrecognizable, forcing fans not only to re-familiarize themselves with already-familiar songs, but to question some of the foundations of Oldham’s music. For many, the early, “raw” quality of Palace’s recordings imparts an intimacy and sincerity, the bareness of the sound implying that there is nothing else to hide. But this equation between sparsity and authenticity is something that Oldham has, from the beginning, toyed with quite extensively, creating songs that spiral inward, post-modern folk that believes and belies in equal measure.

Oldham has never been simply an indie troubadour, any more than Dylan was simply a folk singer. Both artists had an abiding interest in experimentation, and in challenging their audience’s rather simplistic response to their music. And, just as Dylan’s fans couldn’t bear the thought of him being anything other than the head of the folk movement, so too are Oldham’s admirers distressed at the prospect of Will dropping his weird hermit schtick and going straight. In many ways, Greatest Palace Music resembles Dylan’s much-hated Self Portrait, a record that thoroughly confounded almost everyone’s expectations and cemented Dylan’s reputation for antagonizing his fans. Although a much more focused album, Greatest Palace Music forces one to deal with issues of authenticity in an entirely new context. Many of the tracks here wouldn’t sound out of place on commercial country radio circa 1989, and despite the obvious care given to arrangement, there is a strange flatness to many of the songs.

“Country” music, in certain forms, has been embraced by wider audiences in the last 10 years or so, especially among the indie-rock contingent. Among other things, country sounds “real,” in some way, an unmediated expression of emotion. This is, of course, not true, and Oldham knows it. Nashville churns out dozens of soulless soundalikes every year, dopey guys in cowboy hats who haven’t got a single thing to say.

So, instead of gritty, live-to-tape country music, Oldham has chosen to record slick, dated country music, with some of Nashville’s finest musicians. Rather than sinking the songs, however, the approach completely reinvents not only these specific songs, but Oldham himself. It’s becoming clear that despite his folk fixations, Oldham has more in common with David Bowie than Woody Guthrie, for creating a context around his work has become just as important as his songs.

Ah yes, the songs. The tracklist, while somewhat predictable, is also mostly a treat. “Agnes, Queen of Sorrow,” recast as a duet, is simply heart-wrenching. “New Partner,” perhaps Oldham’s most-beloved song, takes on an entirely new life here. Originally a slyly erotic paean to a new love, the tone now is more subdued, even slightly weary. Oldham sounds like someone who’s been around a time or two, yet remains optimistic about a love he knows probably won’t last. Like much of the album, the tone is invested with country’s wry awareness of human frailty, lending the songs a grander, more general scope than many of the originals possess.

Why do we need to feel that music is “real” somehow? Perhaps it has to do with trust, with some sense that whatever arouses our emotions needs to be honest, or have an implicit understanding of the listener’s experience. Will Oldham possesses an incredible talent for emotional connection, but he has insisted throughout his career to complicate this relationship between himself, his music, and the people who hear it. We might love his songs, but we can’t trust him. All art involves contextualization, but most musicians have remained curiously stubborn in maintaining naïve assumptions about the sincerity of the artist. Oldham, like the White Stripes, Talking Heads, or David Bowie, makes us aware of artifice in order to create a more richly felt experience. This is what is essential about Oldham’s work, rather than questions of sincerity or insincerity, which ultimately miss the point. Greatest Palace Music, in this sense, completes the rather elliptical course of Oldham’s career, creating music that lays itself bare and reveals nothing, all at once.

By Jason Dungan

Other Reviews of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Master and Everyone

The Letting Go

Lie Down in the Light


Wolfroy Goes To Town

Now Here’s My Plan

Read More

View all articles by Jason Dungan

Find out more about Drag City

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.