Album review

Palace In Wonderland

It's over a decade since former actor Will Oldham took his first faltering steps in a forgotten backwater of American music. When Oldham began recording with his brother Paul in 1992 he was recovering from a nervous breakdown, staking out an area that provided a refuge for his skewed, haunted but unusually perceptive sensibility. Initially operating out of his native Kentucky as The Palace Brothers, then Palace and Palace Music, Oldham and his collaborators drew on a rich and mysterious well of Appalachian folk, worried life blues and stern, unforgiving gospel.

But Oldham's songs were not just genre exercises—they refashioned old forms to give a striking and original angle on the modern world. A timeless quality pervaded Oldham's compositions, casually entwining themes of death and despair, spiritual decay and fleeting images of carnal contentment. They signalled the arrival of a unique new voice: the late 20th century literate hillbilly.

In person, Oldham would often appear furtive and distracted. With his wilfully obtuse stance he seemed either intent on hijacking his career at every turn or, more intriguingly, constructing an elaborate mystique to deal with the troublesome business of increasing fame and notoriety.

Along with the name changes, there were the monosyllabic interviews where he cast himself as a withdrawn hypochondriac or a diehard fan of Mariah Carey. Righteously bristling at any attempt to ascribe him alt.country figurehead status, Oldham seemed determined to remain an outsider, carving a niche as a genuine auteur of American song. Confirmation that his strategy had worked came when he unveiled his current persona on his astonishing 1999 album, I See A Darkness. Both this and the album that followed, Ease On Down The Road, suggested that, in Bonnie, Oldham had discovered a new sense of artistic freedom. On the Palace records, Oldham had marked out his musical and psychic landscape; the shimmering foreboding of Darkness and the jaunty. singalong merriment of Ease On Down The Road was where he explored the humanity and relationships of the characters who dwelled there.

Despite his natural inclination for sabotage, the release of Oldham's third album in his Bonnie 'Prince' incarnation finds him more popular than ever. Johnny Cash's recording of the "I See A Darkness" title track conferred respect, while liaisons with Marianne Faithfull and P J Harvey enhanced his standing and heightened his profile.

However, this increased recognition has not diverted Oldham from his singular path. Quite the opposite—stepping back from the carousing cheating songs and infidelity celebrations of its predecessor, Master And Everyone presents the Bonnie lad in his starkest incarnation to date.

Produced by Mark Nevers, the Nashville engineer who added the spooked effects and eerie sonic dimensions to Lambchop's Nixon, the album also features 'Chop associates Tony Crow and Matt Swanson alongside Oldham's younger brother Paul. But the naked, demo-like quality of the recordings, complete with off-microphone background noises, snatches of rhythms tapped out by a foot on the floor or a hand slapped on the thigh, lends a weird but welcome intimacy.

The songs unfold like tentative quests. Centred on Oldham's vastly improved voice and open-tuned guitar, they are parables that alternately puzzle over and cling to the ideal of monogamy in a turbulent world.

First is "The Way", with its glowering cello accompaniment and a gently woozy vocal that recalls Nick Drake's in full yearning reverie. But the Baptist imagery ("into the river we will wade") and tender but bawdy instruction ("let your unloved parts get loved") are inimitably Oldham—balancing lust with deep emotional commitment.

The first of two duets with veteran Nashville vocalist Marty Slayton, "Ain't You Wealthy, Ain't You Wise?" is a spellbinding, open-hearted declaration of faith and commitment. The immediate reference point is Gram and Emmylou, but Oldham goes further, deeper. Nevers' swirling effects capture the fear and turmoil beneath the surface ("Now you've seen the evil eye/Hold onto me while I cry") but is here banished by true love ("There's no pain in the night/There's no dream left undreamt").

By turns an innocent abroad and a rogue prankster who calls the shots, the Bonnie 'Prince' goes places other songwriters leave uncovered, striking disarmingly frank poses throughout. On "Wolf Among Wolves" he praises his inner animal and bemoans his partner's inability to "see me for what I am/A wolf among wolves and not a man among men". He delivers folk parables for the modern world on "Maundering" and "Joy And Jubilee", and a modern gospel message on "Lessons From What's Poor".

But the recurring theme is the nature of love and commitment: the unbearably ominous "Even If Love" edges along the brink of the abyss of loss before toppling right in. "Three Questions" plays out a pagan marriage ceremony in a post-nuclear setting. On the closing "Hard Life" he breaks away from duet-partner Slayton on the last verse: wracked by the possibility and imagined pain of a life spent alone, he ends the album moaning for release.

In just over 35 minutes, the Bonnie Prince's mastery of form, blend of gentle awe and trembling sweetness are distilled to their essence. Who knows what Oldham will do next: cast off his regal mantle and make a Mariah Carey tribute album? Get together with a mean and dirty electric band and recast these songs as sneering, demonic pledges? The choice is his.

Meanwhile, Master And Everyone is a perfectly balanced blend of candour and heartstopping beauty.

Rating: 5 / 10


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