Bonnie 'Prince' Billy is the most prolific artist of the past 15 years. With that comes a lot of baggage. Mainly, it's getting to a, well, Guided by Voices point. In the past year we've had Beware, Silent City (with Brian Harnetty), and Funtown Comedown (with the Picket Line). And, to be sure the output has been rather, well, mixed. What's undeniable, however, is that when Mr. Oldham hits his stride -- as he seems to reinvent in the astonishing Wonder Show of the World -- there's no one who can match his talent. And we should all be counting our lucky stars that he isn't mercurial with his recordings.
What are the bands you love? What do they sound like? My guess is that they're all groups with an unwavering authentic voice. Think Radiohead. Think The Flaming Lips. And what keeps you coming back isn't the fact that the sequel has the same characters as the first one -- its that they manage to shift how that authenticity sounds.
With folky music, that's a bit more a burden. In the end it's the most elementary of musical forms -- a voice and an instrument. But, what BPB does on Wondershow is manage to pull that voice into a realm that he's only hinted at before while maintaining his beautiful wealth of prior recordings.
A case in point is the aching "That's What Our Love Is" which seems to move to a maudlin, saccharine crescendo before the jolting undercut of the lyric: "the smell of your box on my mustache." It's a sound that harkens to the most romantic hearts of your hippie brethren. OK - so maybe the lyric isn't, um, desirable. I have played this song (with the annoying attentiveness of a first boyfriend) to a handful of people all of which look at me and say -- "Did...did...did he just say 'box on my mustache?'" To which, I giddily reply, "yes." Why the fuck am I so giddy about this? Well, for the first time since Superwolf, I've heard that gorgeous bizarro tenor that Oldham manages so well. It's kinda romantic and kinda creepy all at once. But, it's his, goddamnit, and you got to hand it to him for wearing it on his shirtsleeve. Because no one else will ever step to actually THINKING that much less WRITING and RECORDING it.
Beyond "that lyric" what really shines on this album is the production. Every note, every harmony, every bit of instrumentation is elegantly taken care of. Beware was a snoozefest for me. It was too slick. Too Nashville. There's homespun elegance in this. It's def. slick, but in a way that fits the music, fits the melody and with as spare as it is, never feels forced. Just listen to the delicate chorus of "Go Folks, Go." Or the acceptance tale that is "Troublesome Houses." It's the kind of production fitting a song that Al Green aspires to.
Like it or hate it, you can't deny the originality that effuses from Oldham's work. We've been lucky to have a glut of it -- but this is possibly the best he's done to date. And from someone working as much and as well as he has, that's a career-sized compliment.