Back in the Sad-Song Saddle
With his work under the shifting name Palace, in the '90s, Will Oldham was a dark figure that drew a devoted following of the sad, weird, and alienated. Perhaps due only to the scant biographical information out there in that era —he was rarely photographed and gave few terse interviews— Oldham was assumed to be some saint for the sad.
In the years since, Stable Will as seemed more unstable; doing plenty to defy those ideas, starting with his name changed to the jolly-sounding Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Beyond that, Oldham has posed in increasingly-comic photos for his album art, played the buffoon in everything from award-winning art movies to Wonder Showzen episodes to R. Kelly videos, and, even, assaulted his own music.
2004's Sings Greatest Palace Music found Oldham, somewhat infamously, taking to the holiest vestiges of his early, peak period with a collection of slick Nashville session musicians. Beyond provoking his early fans, it was an example of the 'project album' mentality that Oldham has appointed for most of the past decade; employing different collaborateurs (Tortoise, Matt Sweeney, the Cairo Gang) and different musical guises to different effect, sometimes making albums that played as little more than larks.
If you were to judge this book by its cover, Wolfroy Goes to Town would be the latest entry in Oldham's ongoing comedy routine; what with that candy-pink artwork and madcap title. But the 21st longplayer for this indefatigable "Prince" of underground Americana is his first straight-up sad and stripped down set since 2006's The Letting Go. It's also perhaps his best, or at least most beautiful, since 1999's I See a Darkness. And, finally, it's a tonic for those old fans who wondered if Oldham would ever again make an album that played like those old ones.
God Is the Answer, God Lies Within
Wolfroy Goes to Town is a hushed, hallowed, humble work; with a reverent air that borders on religious, and a congregation of backing singers —including the glorious warble of Chicago songsmith Angel Olsen— employed like choir to his preachin'. This suits a lyrical motif that is filled with references to the divine.
Early in 2011, the Bonnie "Prince" issued a seven-inch, "There Is No God" b/w "God Is Love," which at the time seemed like a lark; especially given the giddy, drunk-country ramblin' of the former jam, which found Oldham caroling "that which puts mouth on cock and vagina" with glee. Here, there's the same lyrical predisposition —God that is, not genitalia— only delivered with far more gravity and grace.
Just as on Willy O's first-ever album, the 1993 Palace Brothers LP There is No-One What Will Take Care of You, God is present, in some form, in every song; usually by name, often in spirit; a panoply of perceptions coloring an often-stark set of songs, God rendered various shades of loving, cruel, absent, omnipresent, bearded, feminine. Oldham explores notions of faith and religion, pitting belief in a deity against the way humans force their own narratives, their own agendas, onto some imagined man in the sky. "Good God guides us/Bad God leaves us," he carols on opener "No Match," and that mixture of sly humor and solemn profundity holds across the whole album.
As the songs roll out mournful and melancholy, Oldham still can shoehorn in the lyrically bizarre (like: "as boys, we fucked each other/as men, we lie and smile"; or: "fat men smiling, bearded men/with blue eyes shining, light within"), but they don't play like jokes. The effect is sad, somehow; like back in that old Palace era, when a song called "You Have Cum In Your Hair and Your Dick Is Hanging Out" was so beautiful it could make you cry.
Record Label: Drag City
Release Date: October 4, 2011