Last year saw the release of two widely divergent tributes to Will Oldham. The first, I Am A Cold Rock. I Am Dull Grass, featured the usual reinterpretations of the singer’s work by various simpatico artists. The other, Bonnie “Prince” Billie Sings Greatest Palace Music, was more adventurous and polarizing. In it, Oldham himself raided the back catalogue of Palace, the circa-’90s indie-rock group of which he was the only constant, and delivered country renditions of some of his most beloved songs.
These two tributes could give the impression that the best days of the enigmatic songwriter, who’s also performed as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Songs, Palace Music and Bonny Billy, are behind him, that his past successes contained more interest than his current offerings. Any such doubt is obliterated by Superwolf, Oldham’s collaboration with Matt Sweeney (of Chavez and Zwan fame) and his latest release under his Bonnie “Prince” Billy moniker. Easily his best album since 1999’s I See a Darkness, Superwolf is a formidable beast indeed, showcasing Oldham at his most droll, sweetly solemn and exultant.
Although Sweeney may appear to be an unusual choice for a collaborator, his presence provided a spark of energy for the good “Prince,” much like Jim O’Rourke bestowed to the revitalized Sonic Youth. Sweeney’s arrangements are refreshingly loose and Oldham’s vocals less controlled, a change of pace from the staid Master and Everyone, the most recent Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, released in 2003.
The Bonnie imprint of sparse, folky instrumentation is still present, but uncharacteristic and unabashed classic-rock riffs grace a couple of songs, enlivening the proceedings considerably. Oldham is in top lyrical form as well. The playfully morbid opening lines of “My Home is the Sea” bode well for the rest of the album: “I have often said/ That I would like to be dead/ In shark’s mouth.” Adding to the more relaxed vibe, Sweeney freely contributes backing vocals and even takes the lead on the bawdy “What Are You?,” managing to pull off lines including “What are you waiting for if not for me/ To take you over my knee/ And spank you mercilessly.”
Superwolf has an air of romanticism rather than dread. Joy, heartache and panther-girls mark its eleven songs. Darkness does descend, however, on the stunning “Blood Embrace,” which builds as much tension as the Palace Brothers classic “Riding.” Its bluesy guitar, searing lyrics and unexpected sample of a woman admitting infidelity to her lover ensure it will not be soon forgotten. Indeed, there is not a weak track on Superwolf, which ranks with Darkness, Viva Last Blues and Days in the Wake as among Oldham’s best. Rest assured that in another ten years Bonnie “Prince” Billy will give the Nashville treatment to the songs of Superwolf as well.