Following up last year's totally homegrown and fiercly DIY self-titled record, resident folkie Bonnie "Prince" Billy is returning with 'Singer's Grave A Sea Of Tongues'. The record sees the man also known as Will Oldham tackling the dark recesses of his mind, with songs he has claimed as being about "one day when only two people died in the whole world". Business as usual for Bonnie, then.
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Compared to last year's sparse, defiantly self-titled record - which starred Bonnie and only Bonnie, for the most part -- 'Singer's Grave: A Sea Of Tongues' finds William Oldham expanding his studio, welcoming a country band who can maximise his soft rock, not supress it. Opener "Night Noises" reminds me of Wilco in their 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' period: a band spoiled for choice with performers and songwriters, they gather around and make tunes that end up quieter and more modest than the sum of their parts. The liner notes for 'Singer's Grave' credit a long list of musicians, and "Night Noises", with its ornate arrangements, shows them off -- there's twang, fiddle, whispered percussion and acoustic strums, but the whole thing comes together around Oldham's plaintive, weightless vocal: as ever, he can smooth out the coarsest lyric, and navigate the most complex of arrangements. The best thing about a backing band is you never notice they're there.
While Oldham has always felt decidedly alt in his country persuasions, on 'Singer's Grave' he sounds in love with the genre in its purest form, melding together its traditional and modern applications into a beautiful, unabashed record. He puts barn-burners like "So Far And Here We Are" -- with its ferocious stomping guitar, muted chords and outlaw narrative -- next to contemplative, deathly quiet acoustic tunes like "There Will Be Spring", which concentrates on the slight modulations Oldham can strangle out of his vocal melodies. Both feel decidedly country in very different ways, one taking after a Dylan writing "Tombstone Blues" and the other feeling something like a Cherry Ghost tune.
Hearing Oldham in the mix of a bunch of performers is something of a relief. He's the kind of songwriter who feels central to any song that involves him, but in the same way that Sufjan Stevens or Bill Callahan do -- to be the protagonist, they need a landscape, a place over the hills filled with little details. "We Are Unhappy" is one of the most heart-breaking tunes Oldham's written -- even this long into his much storied career, he's able to mine new emotions from broken friendships and ending faith -- but what's most startling is the empathy he wrangles from his band. The banjo is soft and comforting, and the boisterous choir that backs Oldham makes his pain feel strikingly communal. The best thing about a backing band is you never notice they're there, but on 'Singer's Grave', the best thing about them is that they're there for Oldham. This is beautiful work from Oldham: but I'm ever thankful for his friends.
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