Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Wonder Show of the World, Domino, 2010
This may sound corny, but I still remember the first time I heard Will Oldham. It was one of those life affirming moments that just stick with you and I'm not embrassed to say that it changed the way I thought about not only music but humanity and the world itself. In some small way it made me a better person, and while I may be a total shit, there is a part of me hanging in some basement somewhere that is still decent enough to sit through a whole Bonnie 'Prince' Billy album without getting cynical.
But no one ever calls him on his shit, and there's this general reverential air about him whenever he so much as opens his mouth that is dangerous. Some of the things Oldham has done are downright stupid, such as the time he, Will Oldham, re-recorded the music he made under the moniker Palace, under his current name Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, the most self-indulgent and narcisstic moment of the 2000s. A moment a lot of ciritics (well, me, really) sort of gave up on the idea of indie rock as a living-breathing form of music. Oldham's work has always been more about the image - the backwoods Appalachian outsider artist that never lived in in the mountains and has been commercially and critcally embraced since his debut - than the actual music.
But Oldham has a way of redeeming himself with each transgression that's impossibly endearing. Wonder Show, his sixteenth release, bears witness to Oldham's slow rebirth as the quiet arbiter of antebellum wisdom and bromantically bearded harmonizing ala Fleet Foxes that's so fashionable these days. The opening track "Troublesome Houses" is a simple, folksy acoustic ballad that wouldn't seem out of place on a Crosby, Stills, and Nash meets James Taylor concept album. As would the collossal "The Sounds are Always Begging" - a plaintive ballad about the destruction of a family and the protective recluse that is music.
At times Oldham wheedles into the abstract lo-fi compositions that have plagued his work in the past. "Where Wind Blows" and "With Cornstalks Among Them" find the harmony and grace of the above tracks dissolving into spontaneous warblings that blur the lines between gospel majesty and indie rock in a way that is surprisingly workable yet somewhat unfinished, like a project or experiement instead of a fully formed song. Oldham's distinctive voice mixes well with that of Emmett Kelly (of the Cairo Gang, Oldham's backing band on this record), unlocking harmonic points that thread together with a lonely precision that's both pathetic and remote, glorious and unheard of in their own way - the essence of a great Oldham work. Highly reccommended for fans and newcomers alike.