Usually, a promo CD arrives here as the full album, with promo cover and a press release. Beware seems to represent a new phenomenon though. Each of the thirteen tracks contains not one but two spoken interjections, reminding your humble reviewer that ‘this is a promotional copy of Beware. These soundbites cut across the music on the album just whenever it starts to get interesting. A little distracting, a little frustrating.
Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy sounds a little frustrated too. For almost a decade, he’s been producing some quality alt.country music and is well known on both sides of the atlantic. But it somehow hasn’t gone quite the way it should for this maverick auteur. The flm soundtracks, the glossy teen dramas, the lucrative car adverts, the video game inserts, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy hasn’t quite cracked it yet and Beware has all the hallmarks of an angst-ridden confessional, doubtlessly inspired by his own personal and professional (I suspect mostly professional) frustrations.
Starting with “Beware Your Only Friend” the sound of the album is firmly on the edgier side of mellow. Guitars are strummed loudly, and the backing vocals assume a strident quality alongside some atmospherically insistent fiddle playing, while Billy’s lyric isn’t in the mood for any apologies “when each new colour round you takes some of your life/that’s when I get angry, an hour before my fight” (my transcription, the promo contains no lyric insert). Obviously, there’s been an argument.
“You Can’t Hurt Me Now” has Billy and his band moving rapidly towards mainstream country territories, until a chirpy xylophone solo and a mariachi trumpet break add the sense of finely tuned eccentricity that places Billy and others like him quite securely on the fringes of Nashville. “My Life’s Work” is possibly the song that the album could centre around more coherently, a downtempo ballad that lays bare Billy’s collection of regrets and half remembered mistakes; “this morning we found no love at all / I bust a hole in the ceiling”, a lyric that gains a certain chill quality when delivered in a hoarse whisper. The overall mood is definitely somber, across tracks such as “Heart’s Arms” and “You Are Lost”, and it isn’t until the deftly picked intro of “There Is Something I Have To Say” that the mood lifts slightly, although this owes more to musicianship than to the song itself, a vignette of implied threat and despair backed with what sounds like railroad sounds in the background, and this thoughtfully constructed piece of Sam Shepherdesque theatrics is also the shortest track on the album. ‘”I Am Goodbye” sounds a bit more cheerful, a line-dance stomp with a funky guitar break that’s oddly out of keeping with much of what surrounds it.
If Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy ever felt the urge to record a good-time energetic alt.country album that we could actually polka to, then the means are certainly at his disposal. The lighter moments on ‘Beware’ are however resolutely undercut by the air of downbeat torment that songs such as “You Don’t Love Me” and “Death Final” bring to the table. Ultimately, it’s the combination of thwarted ambition and lack of proper recognition, which is apparent, that prevents Beware from ever fully taking flight as a listening experience. Maybe it’s the apostrophes, Billy.