The cover of Bonnie "Prince" Billy’s eighth studio album bears a striking resemblance to the cover of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night. It’s so uncanny that it can’t be a coincidence, and yet the only common ground Tonight’s the Night shares with Beware is that it was Young’s eighth LP as well. Musically the albums couldn’t be more different. Tonight’s the Night sees a world-weary Young straining to sing against a flawed, loose musical arrangement, contrasting sharply with the polished sound of Harvest. Beware has a confident, full-voiced Oldham buoyed by rousing backing singers and a richly textured musical accompaniment. It’s leaps away from the fragile warble and sparse arrangement of his outstanding I See a Darkness, which the cover art also hazily recalls.
Like I See a Darkness, Beware is an unsettling album, worthy of the caveat, not because of the troublesome themes touched upon but because of the confused signals it sends. Oldham’s pairing of ominous, mischievous lyrics with formulaic country melodies and lush production is jarring. On opener "Beware Your Only Friend," Oldham launches, "I want to be your only friend," and later warns, "Watch out for these silent thoughts/ that’s where the seed of soul-sucking grows." Meanwhile, a cheery, high-pitched female chorus chimes alternately, "Is that scary?" and "Beware of me." Barn-house fiddles play happily along, undermining the notion that there is anything to be scared of.
"You Can’t Hurt Me Now" is a more melancholy take on conventional country & western: A lap-steel guitar, lazy xylophone and chirpy horns accompany a hearty-voiced Oldham and somehow manage to strip the song of the poignancy it had when he performed it acoustically a couple of months ago on WNYC’s Soundcheck. The cacophony of instruments, including soaring saxophone, on the vigorous, John Denver- esque "My Life’s Work" has an odd flattening effect on the sound, and that continues through "Death Final" and the melodramatic "Heart’s Arms."
The pace takes a joyful turn on "You Don’t Love Me" with Oldham singing cheekily along to cheerful handclaps: "Sometimes you like the smell of me, or how my stomach jiggles, but you don’t love me." Jubilant horns keep the mood afloat and the backing singers mercifully at bay. Whereas before Bonnie "Prince" Billy used extra vocal harmonies sparingly, they abound on Beware, swamping his own voice to the detriment of songs like "I Won’t Ask Again" or "I Don’t Belong to Anyone."
Persevering with Beware does bring rewards. The album’s most atmospheric, eerie and original song comes just after the midway point, on the short, sorrowful "There’s Something I Have to Say," when Oldham takes a break from formulaic country & western and sets aside the rich production, instrumentation and crooning female harmonies. It’s followed by the frivolous "I Am Goodbye," which almost seems to mock the sobriety of the previous track, but it’s such a jolly, jaunty, whoops-included country ditty that all is forgiven.
This clash of the sincere and the facetious that makes Beware such a disconcerting album. The uncharacteristically orthodox orchestration and delivery, which reaches such cheesy proportions at times it has got to be tongue-in-cheek, sits uncomfortably with the lyrics. On "Without Word, You Have Nothing," a slow, violin-led number that lulls the listener into a stupor, Oldham earnestly advises on how to give good handjobs: "Move your hands faster, that’s what your man wants."
"Beware," reads the album cover. But beware of what exactly? Bewilderment? Boredom? Dismissing this album as a flawed homage to country & western? Or believing everything is as it seems?