Will Oldham has ploughed a lone furrow in the margins of American alternative music for the best part of two decades, but The Wonder Show of the World - his 15th LP under the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy pseudonym - yields a vintage harvest. Since 1999s fin de siècle classic I See a Darkness, Oldham’s commendable work rate has been at the heart of countless moments of emotional austerity and coal-black humour. Today, collaborating again with Ciaro Gang man Emmett Kelly, familiar themes of vice and skewed domesticity permeate a record imbued with a fraction more light than before.
The opener Troublesome Houses is the most striking arrangement of the ten song set, relating the tale of a relationship crumbling beneath the weight of addiction. Under ringing open chords and weaving vocal harmonies, initial comparisons to Neil Young evaporate after a first listen. Elsewhere, on Teach Me to Bear You, Oldham’s breathy delivery and pregnant pauses jar with Kelly’s sharp blues guitar: it sounds for all the world like Jeff Buckley jamming with Bo Diddley. Oldham’s technique of using first-person narrative belie his occasional forays into acting, the listener forced to remind themselves these songs are stories rather than simply confessions set to music.
The record’s centerpiece is the stately That’s What Our Love Is, a seven minute meditation on companionship, night terrors, and says Billy: ‘the smell of your box on my moustache’. For a man known for wearing the sort of whiskers Kaiser Wilhelm I might consider excessive, this makes for an arresting image. Amid frenzied Spanish guitar and wandering bass, heavenly harmonies the likes of which Fleet Foxes would kill for echo around the mix. These are used to great effect throughout the LP, particularly on Someone Coming Through, which occupies the space between Gregorian chant and negro spiritual. And there is Oldham’s great achievement: using choice elements of the great American music movements to fashion a sound that belongs in the modern age. Merciless and great.