Will Oldham’s long-running persona, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, may be best know for near-classic albums like 1999’s I See A Darkness or 2003’s Master and Everyone. But the Billy that gives us Wolfroy Goes to Town is a far cry from the guy that delivered those contained, clearly structured tunes. Working with a spare band here — including the Cairo Gang’s Emmett Kelly — Billy gives us a threadbare but wandering album, one that both stretches out and stretches itself thin, revealing both the fatigue of age and discovery of youth.
Much is said of Oldham’s wisdom and honesty in his recent albums, but really he plays so much in personas — say, operating as a character (Billy) singing about another character (Wolfroy) — that it’s hard to tell when he’s actually wise and honest and when he’s just playing at those nobilities, or if making that distinction actually matters. It may be worth noting a bit more here, if only because in listening to Wolfroy it’s hard not to think of Mickey Newbury. It’s not a stretch to make the connection — Oldham covered Newbury on 2007’s Ask Forgiveness and his label Drag City just issued a box set of Newbury’s best albums — but it does complicate things a bit, since Newbury was confessional and revealing sometimes to the point of affecting discomfort, and sometimes to the point of schmaltz.
If Oldham hits a similar vein of quiet confession, and in the best parts of Wolfroy he does, then he makes the distinction for us between what’s real and what’s true the way his best work (see above) did. The album is a series of hard-earned realizations, with the past acting as catalyst for new beginnings. Opener “No Match,” with its swelling country-western waltz, feels bracing, a fine introduction to the set where age is recognized (“Age may be a match of you”) but also shucked off in favor of discovery (“but it is no match for me”). Of course, the somber “New Whaling” gives us a new context for this starting over: regret. “Once I had a partner, but now that is done,” Oldham nearly whispers. “I made awful actions that I thought [were] fun,” he says in explanation.
It’s a stark turn from the blooming feel of the opener, but the shift works because it sets up an album of scattershot emotions and reactions, a musical world where discovery is about acknowledging all possibilities and their origins, whether they come from a newfound thirst for life or a deep-seeded regret. Billy (or Wolfroy, the layers of persona are hard to keep track of) sings of fresh starts, but the past is never far behind. It must be dealt with to be left behind, which he keens about on “Time to Be Clear.” He and his lover want to “begin new stories here.” But next thing you know he’s asking for a beer before he confronts past enemies. Closing the past, opening up the future.
The album treads lightly between that past and present, tip-toeing through these compositions, but despite its unyielding quiet the album still comes off as surprisingly expansive. “We Are Unhappy” stretches to nearly seven minutes on slowed-down acoustic guitar, a noodling electric guitar, and little else. “Black Captain” is equally long and spare, but built up nicely on lilting vocal harmonies and a distant organ.
These songs work because Oldham earns this quiet. It’s a sound carefully built over the course of the album, eased into and hinged on subtle but carefully chosen details. Lead single “Quail and Dumplings” is actually an outlier here. Funnier and far more playful than anything around it, it’s got thumping percussion and a rumbling surf-rock riff that breaks up Wolfroy‘s huge stretches of negative space.
Emmett Kelly may be the key to Oldham’s success here. As on last year’s The Wonder Show of the World, her resonant playing, countering Angel Olsen’s restrained backing vocals, acts as the perfect foil to Oldham’s weary creak. Kelly and Oldham also give just enough order to these songs to keep them from getting too unwieldy. Sometimes the mix is off — the crescendo of guitars in “Cows” and the rising vocals in “New Tibet” feel forced next to the softer intricacies of other songs — but Kelly has somehow revitalized Oldham and given him a new direction for Billy. After the standard (yet aimless) country of Beware, Oldham’s collaborations with Kelly have shed his reliance on tight structures and the results here are often brilliant. It’s a similar, if more intimate, approach as Wonder Show, but the songs are more consistent and striking.
Wolfroy Comes to Town is an album that requires your attention. It’s barely-there sound makes it a great headphones record, and — aside from the whispery textures that crop up — there’s enough of Oldham’s mix of pathos, wit, and confrontation to keep you picking out curious lyrics for a long time to come. More than the last few albums, Wolfroy rewards this kind of close relationship between listener and performer. Billy’s been telling sweet lies to us for quite some time, but here they’re in service of opening the world up, not suring up the wise-wanderer mythology around his persona. “Questions rule my world,” he sings on the beautiful closer, “Night Noises,” and there — just for a second — he doesn’t sound like Wolfroy, or Billy. He sounds like Will. And even if that’s another sleight of hand, it’s a trick worth falling for.