These days, it seems that Will Oldham, like the music that oozes from him, is everywhere, subtly. He collaborated last year with the likes of the Silver Jews (on Tanglewood Numbers) and Matt Sweeney (on Superwolf); he acted in films (Old Joy this year and Junebug last); and even deejayed a set at last year’s Intonation Festival. His music is not as ubiquitous, but it fills everything it enters — small spaces or giant landscapes. In the Romantic tradition, by seemingly being everywhere at once, Oldham is creating a world of his own. The Letting Go, his fourth proper solo album as Bonnie "Prince" Billy, introduces us to a new landscape of his strangeness — a new country to traverse. Like moving to a new place, I first grasped onto the similarities between this album and his previous output, then onto the tiny differences that seem to alter so much, and then I settled in.
From the first strums of sweeping strings (arranged by Ryder McNair and Nico Muhly) on opener "Love Comes to Me," it’s apparent that Oldham is once again venturing out in his own way — not far away from the slightly rougher Bonnie "Prince" Billy of 2003’s Master and Everyone. He did record this album in Reykjavik with strings and significant input from Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, who doesn’t so much provide backup vocals as she becomes another element of The Letting Go‘s sound. Alongside Oldham’s strained, haunting voice, McCarthy’s contributions create a haunting effect. That’s particularly true on "No Bad News" when the tempo suddenly changes and McCarthy’s voice flickers around Oldham’s quivering delivery as he sings: "Hey, little bird/ thank you for not/ letting go of me/ when I let go of you."
The old Oldham — the strange and funny one of his Palace incarnations and Ease Down the Road — is not absent. In his ode to global warming, "Cold & Wet," Oldham and his twangy blues guitar create a song that comes closest to freak-folk. If anything, though, the song’s simplicity and honesty prove there need be no comparison.
The Letting Go benefits as much from diversity as from Valgeir Sigurosson’s recording. Having only received a "recorded by" credit, it is difficult to say how much Sigurosson influenced the final product, but the album features the most variety in timbre and fidelity of any of Bonnie "Prince" Billy’s previous recordings. The murky, hollow percussion on "Lay and Love" firmly plant the album in Sigur Ros’s Iceland. But, "Big Friday," a chamber-like song that, save for Oldham’s voice, could belong to Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, stretches the album’s dynamic beyond the icy landscape.
Iceland gave us Bjork and Sigur Ros and even Gus Gus the island nation will, for a while at least, be attached to beautiful eccentric strangeness. That description has also often been attached to Will Oldham (see his Web site for further convincing). Like Oldham, like Iceland itself, the strangeness of The Letting Go may be all we know of it until we look further. In the opener, Oldham sings, "When the numbers/ get too high/ of the dead/ Flying through the sky/ oh, I/ Don’t know why/ Love comes to me." If anything, perhaps to Bonnie "Prince" Billy, letting go is not an end but a beginning.
"Cursed Sleep" video