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Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - The Letting Go

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Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Album: The Letting Go

Label: Drag City

Review date: Sep. 17, 2006

For someone with such a clearly defined aesthetic, Will Oldham (a.k.a. Palace, a.k.a. Bonnie 'Prince’ Billy) has never managed a cohesive full-length. The Letting Go is not that record. It is the closest he’s come since I See a Darkness (held together by its prevalent gloom), which is the closest he’s gotten. It does contain some beautiful songs. Its deficiencies won’t miff his indulgent cult (at least not any more than they’ve been miffed previously). But it doesn’t quite hold together.

Since 2004’s Greatest Palace Music, a selection of Oldham’s more tuneful material recast as slick Nashville pop, the man Chunklet called “John Denver with a fancy education” has proven himself equally fluent in '70s AOR and MOR as in the spooky, faux-rustic minimalism he helped to popularize. The Letting Go gives his material a lush, steady setting, which at this point is hardly disappointing. The string section is more flesh than cheese. Dawn McCarthy’s soaring backing vocals are a constant, often exhilarating counterpoint to Oldham’s thin, weary lead.

More impressively, BPB’s artistic maturity has not resulted in diminishing creative returns – he's less half-assed than ever. Lyrically, he sticks with quasi-philosophical love songs, which suits his new style. He stays away from the Cormac McCarthy-ish homoeroticism that once plagued his weaker material. The gentle ballads “Wai” and “Love Comes to Me” rank with his loveliest, most cumulatively haunting tunes. The Stones-poisoned gospel of “Cursed Sleep” makes a fantastic first single – by Oldham’s standards, it practically swaggers. The ominous “The Seedling” and the airy, cleansing “God’s Small Song” distinguish the disc’s latter half.

But closer to the middle, Oldham’s penchant for fussy, precious filler tunes costs him. There’s the silly fake blues of “Cold & Wet.” And there’s “No Bad News,” an awkwardly paced ditty with no hook and lyrics that sound deep but aren’t about anything, the quintessence of bad Oldham. Played front-to-back, The Letting Go starts strong and stately, then loses its balance and then stashes a few great tracks near the end. Played in reverse order, it has the same problem. And how can anyone, in twenty-aught-six, put a buffer of silence before the final track and not feel like a goofball?

Oldham’s coterie has forgiven him all varieties of self-indulgence. But there are more complex reasons why he can’t put out a solid LP, and they're some of the same reasons he'll never be "country." The man has always communicated in unsolvable riddles, which forbids the establishment of a clear narrative arc. For all the dark beauty of individual songs, there’s an emptiness at the center, a resigned calm more disturbing than any amount of aggression, ambition or despair. Even his best songs feed on enigma, unable to function when their peculiar magic doesn't take. It’s created some unforgettable short stories, but doesn’t quite paste up a novel.

By Emerson Dameron

Other Reviews of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

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Master and Everyone

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Wolfroy Goes To Town

Now Here’s My Plan

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