Bonnie "Prince" Billy – The Letting Go

Bonnie "Prince" Billy
The Letting Go

Having delivered himself to a peak of naked beauty with 1999’s sublime I See A Darkness, Will Oldham somehow seemed to lose the momentum he’d spent the preceding six or so years building-up (via various Palace and self-monikered releases). Perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove himself – especially with the high-accolade of having the late-Johnny Cash cover one of his songs – Oldham has been drifting into somewhat distracting dilettantism. Thus, there have been a slew of double-header collaborations (with Tortoise, Matt Sweeney et al.), contrary self-reinvention projects (notably the Nashville session-men assisted review of his Palace songbook), lazy archival clearance (Guarapero: Lost Blues 2) and a wilfully unpredictable approach to stage performances (as captured on last year’s Summer In The Southeast live album) to throw listeners off his scent.

Amidst all this extra-curricular activity, there’s barely been much of Will Oldham “playing it straight” in his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy guise – with 2003’s slightly unmemorable Master And Everyone being a fleeting exception – provoking a feeling that he’s just exploiting the attentions of obsessively-loyal fans with indulgent diversions. Which is why this latest long-player, The Letting Go, feels like a blessed-relief from all the shape-shifting and conceptual reshuffling of latter-day Oldham recordings.

Relying on a set of sympathetic and restrained guests – including vocalist Dawn McCarthy (Faun Fables), ever-reliable brother Paul Oldham on bass, drummer Jim White (Dirty Three) and a scrupulously arranged Icelandic string-ensemble – The Letting Go is arguably the most pretty and richly detailed record Oldham has released in years. It’s not an easy or immediate collection of songs admittedly, but its best moments certainly find Oldham refocusing directly upon the open-heart of his songwriting. Musically too, Oldham has pared-back some of his latter-day excesses – without shutting-out more expansive embellishments when required – in favour of distinctively sparse and arcane folk balladry.

The opening “Love Comes To Me” more or less encapsulates the most likeable strand of the album’s wares evoking Leonard Cohen at his most plaintive and romantic, with McCarthy’s ethereal tones eerily echoing recently unearthed Britfolk legend Vashti Bunyan. Indeed, like Cohen, Oldham is a perversely alluring suitor when he wants to be, as the dainty magical likes of “Big Friday” and “Wai” wonderfully attest. But for every strong arm of comfort from Oldham’s songbook, there is also a chilling threat. It’s this sense of dread that certainly underscores the foreboding strains of “Cursed Sleep” and “The Seedling”, wherein strings, vocals and strained electric guitars swirl into a wave of desperation, sharing a similar vibe with past bleak Oldham epics like “Death To Everyone” and the infamous “Riding” as a by-product. Although the twin forces of emphatic darkness and lithesome light tussle to dominate the album, Oldham also resurrects his cracked-bluesman persona on the delicious lo-fi whimsy of “Cold & Wet”, as well as revisiting the eerie elliptical magnetism of his rare Dirty Three-assisted Western Music EP for the stunning “Ebb Tide”, obliquely relegated here to hidden-track status.

Whilst The Letting Go may not match the ghostly splendour of I See A Darkness or the raw redemption of Viva Last Blues, it undoubtedly halts Oldham’s directionless slide into insincerity. Crucially, it goes a long way to reminding many of us why we gave over such a large section of our record collections to accommodate his singular songcraft in the first place.