Bonnie Prince Billy, Bryce Dessner & Eighth Blackbird – When We Are Inhuman review

by Philip Moss

Will Oldham is undoubtedly one of the most important and best songwriters America has produced in the last three decades. But despite the brilliant solo work he’s produced – much of which was collated on last year’s understatedly stunning Songs of Love and Horror – large proportions of his career have been built on collaboration with the likes of The Bitchin’ Bajas, The Cairo Gang and Trembling Bells. The latest of which comes in the form of When We Are Inhuman: a body of work that has been developed with The National’s Bryce Dessner, and the contemporary classical group,  Eighth Blackbird.

Three Will Oldham songs are reimagined on the record. Beast For Thee, which incidentally also spawned from Superwolf, his collaborative album with Matt Sweeney, sees the Zwan man’s shimmering guitar and ominous synth, replaced by a wash of percussion and strings. Lisa Kaplin’s extended introduction builds the tension before Oldham’s knowing voice enters, and he is joined beautifully by Nathalie Joachim’s harmony vocals. New Partner, originally found on the Palace Music record, Viva Last Blues, sees the rawness of Steve Albini’s production replaced by a bright live recording from a show in Cincinnati, OH. Again, the fluttering backing from Eighth Blackbird provides the perfect backdrop for Oldham’s voice, which truly takes off as the song reaches its climactic ending. While One With The Birds – a track lifted from a 1998 EP of the same same – is definitely the least well known of the three songs presented by Oldham; Dessner’s production, as throughout, is spacious and tasteful, and provides real treasure even for long time fans.

Interweaved between the Oldham penned tracks are Down In The Willow Garden and Banks of Red Roses. Both tracks – arranged by Bryce Dessner, and taken from his classical series, Murder Ballades – see Oldham taking on traditional song: the former being a classic Appalachian tune, which is recited from the perspective of a man who’s to be executed for murdering his love, therefore, providing perfect material for one of America’s truly great storytelling songwriters. Before the collection reaches its conclusion through Eighth Blackbird’s rhythmic 16 minute reimagining of Julius Eastman’s iconic Stay On It.

When We Are Inhuman is yet another fine instalment in the Bonnie Prince Billy saga – and as a group of collaborators, this record certainly makes you wonder what they could rustle up with a full set of new, original songs. That really could be something special…

Secret Meeting score: 84


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