Album by Bonnie "Prince" Billy.
For those still under the spell of Will Oldham's majestic The Letting Go, or perhaps the superb show at Eureka's tiny Synapsis Gallery, this latest Bonnie "Prince" Billy album may at first be a disappointment. It enters with a warm, countrified splash of fiddles, banjo, piano and vocal harmonization, with an air of CSN or the Grateful Dead. An old fan may ask, where is the "darkness," the incest, murder, dissimulation? With repeated listenings the subtle enchantments of Oldham's lyrical song cycle grow, organically emerging from strange and beautiful, unfamiliar areas of the heart and mind.
The chameleonic Kentucky native Oldham has always hidden his gnomic and Gnostic creations within wizard's cloaks and veiled meanings. Performing under the names Palace, Palace Music, Palace Brothers and even his own name, he has adopted a moniker derived from the young Jacobite pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and from William Bonney, a.k.a. Billy the Kid. Throughout he has been a consistently intriguing and strangely moving songwriter, capable of raw sincerity and piercing insight. But in recent years he has forgone the croaking wail and atonality he once used to hide his oddness and mysteries, dropping the off-key guitars and lo-fi sloppiness, favoring beautifully and subtly produced albums.
Never content to stay in one mode or style, the "Prince" shifts, changes and dodges with each record. This album is more straightforward than his Valgeir Sigurdsson-produced previous album, leaving the Icelandic mood behind for down-home Nashville under Mark Nevers' production. Ashley Webber's lovely vocal duets and backgrounds, organ and pedal steel, Shahzad Ismaily's multi-instrumentalism, even a row of wrenches and clarinet give it rich, grounded space. And Oldham has never reached more deeply into the human universal lyrically or vocally. "Lie Down in the Light" dispels the "freak folk" label, and should drive the likes of Devendra Banhart back into their caves in shame.
On the cover a comic image — a muscle-bound manly man wrestling a green, Hulk-like angel with psychedelic wings — suggests (and lampoons) the serious depth of the album's themes. "I know my way around the world/It's a circle and it starts and it ends." This cycle, like the seasons and stages of life, begins with roots and ends in enchanted reconciliation. From "good earthly music," home and family, love and exultant public eroticism, through suspicion of human motivation, loss and death, it moves toward the spiritual with a playful sense of humor and grace. He regards the cosmos, which we can never fully understand: "For every king there's a crown, and every time I look around, I am the king of infinite space." Occult and full of potential, this line is actually from a song likening the human to a blind mole in the ground.
Hope and fond irony abound, despite tragedy and obstacles, rather than resignation. Through lists of loss and human incapacity in "What's Missing Is," to recognition of human folly and consequent transcendence in "Where's the Puzzle?" the realization is, "Why do you frown /Why do you try/Why don't you lie down in the light?" Then "Willow Trees Bend" suggests a new salvation: "For every man alive there is a fire/And for every king a crown .... / When faced with your fire/I will surrender to you." The near-gospel "I'll Be Glad" offers hope and levity, with its choral backup and allusion to a child's rhyme and Christ as shepherd: "Lord, wherever you go you'll always have me around." This is the "song that does not end." It is life. And yet he holds to the earth and longing for "new harmony on an awesome scale": "The song is a man and a woman, and everything else." For those with ears to hear, this album is a wonder not to be discounted.