Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Marquis de Tren - "Solemn 119"
It’s looking to be a good year for Bonnie “Prince” Billy. In February, Will Oldham reunited with The Letting Go partner Dawn McCarthy on the fine Everly Brothers homage What the Brothers Sang, and April’s brought us Solemns, a new project with Get On Jolly’s Marquis de Tren (a.k.a. Dirty Three guitarist Mick Turner). While Solemns is a rather short affair — three tracks coming in under 20 minutes — it would be a disservice to call it slight. Drawing upon Old Testament Psalms (the title is something of a pun), Oldham and Turner distill their source into intense and affecting music that packs quite a punch despite its small scale.
While Solemns also finds Oldham accompanied by his current collaborators Emmett Kelly, Van Campbell and Angel Olsen, it’s Dirty Three drummer Jim White who really tips the balance here, making the project sound much closer musically to Dirty Three than to any recent BPB output. White’s drums lay a skeletal but solid framework, upon which simple chord progressions, keyboard drones, and Oldham and Olsen’s multi-tracked vocals are overlaid. Despite their relative simplicity, though, Oldham and Turner’s compositions don’t feel much like songs: the vocals present the psalmic texts more as words set to music than as song lyrics, letting their sound and meaning dictate rhythm and tone rather than attempting to squeeze them into a more stable format. The music, like the words, tends to flow unidirectionally, like a short statement rather than a “composed” piece based on structure and repetition. The aim here is music that feels spiritually and aesthetically “ecstatic,” free of the usual strictures that govern song structure, and keeping the listener in a state of mild disorientation and fixed attention.
The looseness persists for all three tracks, moving Oldham away from the more polished and calculated sound that he’s been cultivating on recent releases, but Solemns never feels tossed-off or willfully ramshackle. While one doesn’t get the sense that Turner and Oldham spent too much time figuring out exactly how the pieces of these three compositions would fit together, one can clearly hear the chemistry and mutual understanding between musicians and vocalists working toward a perfectly well-defined and shared goal, if just for a few short and sweet moments.