Album: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy

Master & Everyone, Domino

Friday 24 January 2003 01:00

Will Oldham's third full-length outing in his Bonnie "Prince" Billy guise may be his best. It's certainly the most enchanting album I've heard this year, a compact (34-minute) set of songs about falling out of love, whose quiet intimacy and simple settings conjure up a spellbinding quality that's utterly captivating. Augmented by little except the occasionalsubtle tint of strings or breath of organ, Oldham's hypnotic acoustic guitar figures have a charged, pregnant calm reminiscent of early Leonard Cohen. His lyrics, too, recall the king of bedsit bards in the way they strive to navigate emotional twists and turns. "Why can't I be loved as what I am/ A wolf among wolves/ And not as a man among men?" he asks in "Wolf Among Wolves", offering the most poignant illustration by having his whiskery, wistful voice slip into falsetto scatting at its close. Elsewhere, "The Way" is typical of his double-edged songwriting, its ostensible message of seduction – "Love me in a way I love you" – undercut by his suggestion that his woman should find another lover. At times, he seems adrift in turbulent emotions, prey to the whims of a love that has its own volition: "Even if love were not what I wanted/ Love would make love the thing most desired." The whole album has the authentic grain and ethical concerns of traditional American folk music, of an age before TV, when there was plenty of time to chew over such matters – particularly in "Lessons From What's Poor", an assertion of wholesome simplicity that has the naïve, solemn charm of an Amish folk song – if they're allowed instruments, that is; I confess I know little about the Amish. Do you suppose they have a website?

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