Wild Mercury Sound

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy: "Ask Forgiveness"

John Mulvey

I guess it’s still fairly early in the morning, but I’m struggling right now to think of many players around at the moment who are as slippery and compelling as Will Oldham. He’s had, by his standards, a relatively quiet year. But the other day, a new mini-album turned up unexpectedly, a few days after it had actually arrived in the shops. Like a big American urban star or Radiohead, clearly Oldham has abandoned the niceties of advance releases for hacks. Which is fair enough, if a bit frustrating.

Anyway, the mentions of American R&B and Radiohead are vaguely apposite. “Ask Forgiveness” is a covers album, and amongst the songs he tackles are R Kelly’s “The World’s Greatest” and the old Bjork/Thom Yorke duet from “Dancer In The Dark”, “I’ve Seen It All”.

The latter is a parched, mildly unnerving backwoods meditation, with Meg Baird providing the harmonies. Baird and her team-mate from Espers, Greg Weeks, provide the musical backdrops on the whole album, since Oldham’s restless musical perambulations seem to have taken him into their camp in Philadelphia. It’s interesting, though, that they predominantly play his game: the vibes remain more Appalachian than lustrous folk-psych, even though Espers are adept at providing the softer reveries which Oldham operates in more comfortably these days (last year’s gorgeous “The Letting Go” being a case in point).

Anyway, R Kelly. It’s one of Oldham’s great gifts that he can seem at once unfathomably contrary, yet can carry off his quixotic decisions with such quiet integrity that you rapidly forget their strangeness. “The World’s Greatest” is not done ironically, or self-consciously: rather, it sees Oldham finding the song’s still, engaging heart and claiming it as his own. Tonally, he treats it no differently to more notionally “tasteful” selections: Mickey Newbury’s “I Came To Hear The Music”; Phil Ochs’ “My Life”; Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am”.

To long-term Oldham watchers, none of this will come as a surprise. I just remembered the first Palace Brothers gig in London some 15-odd years ago I guess, where he did a Whitney Houston song, maybe “I Will Always Love You”, beautifully. There’s also the covers set with Tortoise from last year, “The Brave And The Bold”, though a better analogue for this in Oldham’s labyrinthine catalogue would be 2000’s “More Revery” (thanks to the fastidious Royal Stable site for reminding me what that one was called).

“Ask Forgiveness” is a terrific record all round, and its highlight is probably a sepulchral version of Danzig’s “Am I Demon?”, which endows doom with a plausibly human dread in a series of nuanced gestures. There’s a new song by Oldham I should mention, too, buried amidst all this excellence. It’s called “I’m Loving The Street” (though you won’t find that out from the sleeve, which doesn’t trouble itself with anything so useful as song titles) and is, inscrutably, one of the jauntiest Oldham songs I can remember. But typically, Oldham makes this and every other unexpected twist in his brilliant career seem coherent and vividly logical. Where next, I wonder?


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