Secret Meeting score: 86
by Philip Moss
French philosopher and literary theorist, Roland Barthes, studied the concept of enigma: questioning what is it that pricks the mind into becoming interested in a idea, subject or text. One thing is for sure. If he’d been around now, Will Oldham would have been a prime subject for his conjectures.
Oldham, a now 48-year-old, Louisville, Kentucky-born singer/songwriter/actor/poet has been releasing records for a quarter of a century under the pseudonyms Palace Brothers, Palace Music and Bonnie Prince Billy. Despite the moniker flirtations, the output remains largely the same – variations on a theme you may say. But only once has he released an LP under his own name, Will Oldham (1997’s Joya). That is, until now.
During the summer, Oldham’s label, Drag City, announced a new Bonnie Prince Billy single, Blueberry Jam. An original composition that was playful in tone and saw him working once more with Matt Sweeney who pulled together 2005’s superb Superwolf LP. But any hopes of a ‘new’ album being imminent were dashed when Songs of Love and Horror – a collection of newly recorded versions of songs from across his entire career – was announced.
The record opens with, perhaps, Oldham’s best known composition, I See A Darkness. A song famously covered by Johnny Cash for Solitary Man – the third instalment of his American Recordings series. But where both the original was a brooding, piano-based piece that hung on the patter of light drums before falling into a hushed mantra, Oldham (under yet another alias – his production moniker, Tusitala De Las Olas) has stripped the careful arrangement back to guitar and vocal. A theme that runs throughout this entire collection.
Whether you’re new to Oldham’s work or have been a long time follower, there’s plenty here to more than appease both camps. His debut single, 1993’s Ohio River Boat Song shows no signs of ageing – despite being adapted from the traditional Scottish piece, Loch Tay Boat Song.
Indeed, Oldham’s self-penned work places him firmly in the bracket alongside modern greats and these updates do nothing but strengthen the case. The Way must go down as one of his all time great pieces of writing. But in reference to this collection’s title, the horror of the original makes way for a romanticism that wasn’t previously evident; the slightly quicker tempo completely transforms it and the new melodic phrasings bring with them an airy lightness. While, with his voice firmly up front, New Partner’s repetitive chorus – ‘You were always on my mind’ – again is revitalised and has never sounded as fresh.
Like his contemporary, Ryan Adams, Oldham is known for his regular release schedule. But not since 2013’s self titled Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy LP, has he released a full collection of new, original material – making this the seventh record in a row of either re-recordings, covers, jams or BBC sessions. Whether that’s down to artistic choice or a lengthy dose of writer’s block, who knows? And the only ‘new’ song here is an unreleased recording of Party With Marty (Abstract Blues) – a song, according to the sleeve notes, recorded by Will on a handheld cassette player in Charlottesville, VA in 1997. So only he can answer why this 21-year-old dusty little urchin been included here. Of course, it’s a delightful ditty. But its inclusion does little to shift the enigma he naturally stirs up.