Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Time of the Superwolf

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy’s new record is a collaboration with Matt Sweeney. Together they form Superwolf. After several listens, I'm still not won over.

Four songs stand out: A Beast for Thee, Lift Me Up, Bed is for Sleeping and Death in the Sea. Generally, these are the cooler, quieter songs. Some were written by Sweeney. Yet all lack the essential Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. I felt more or less the same about Master & Everyone, Ease Down the Road and, going back much further, Joya. While there are great songs in each, there is a sense of an inauthentic assertion (which might explain why they were popular with journalists). However, with these LPs, one at least felt there was something going on, a search for a way forward.

Some might now look back and see Greatest Palace Music - the lush, Nashville reworkings of the Palace Brothers' low-fi alt-Country classics - as an indication of BPB’s stagnation, or worse, his betrayal. I don't. I see it as a triumphant reassertion of his essence: serious joy. All the darkness of the originals is unified with the brightest, most gorgeous music. It’s not a matter of being better or worse but of reinvention.

Superwolf is, by comparison, fairly complacent arcane musings in familiar (familiarly arcane) BPB territory. There is no real sense of reinvention.

Only with the opening lines of Death in the Sea do I sense what makes Will Oldham songs special.

Someday I must die.
It ain’t for me to know why.
And I want to die in the sea

Here is the familiar and endearing preoccupation with death; a morbidity that is immediately mixed with an odd sense of joy – due partly to the cool tenderness with which Will Oldham sings the lines, and partly to the writing: the adamant statement of the final line, in all its cheerful peculiarity, raises the spirits. The dual movement towards death and life is all important. It makes me want to hear it again and again. Unfortunately, the rest of the song dissipates this joy too easily.

Perhaps the collaboration with Sweeney has diluted the essence. But all music is a collaboration. Individuals collaborate with music. This is why Will Oldham appears as Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. He recognises (seems to feel it viscerally) that the music removes Will Oldham from himself. He is reinvented, or goes as far as to become someone else. When this dynamic is the subject of his songwriting (with death at its heart), Bonnie 'Prince' Billy comes into his own. With Superwolf, reinvention is indulged in rather than explored.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:49 am

    You make some great points. But.... In my experience it takes WAY more than 5 listens to begin to absorb, much less try to analyze any of his work.



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