The best of Oldham's early work, revisited Nashville-style
In May 2003, Will Oldham travelled to Nashville with a subversive plan, even by his standards. Long championed as a dissident country voice, he decided to give a selection of his best songs a glossy Nashville makeover. A vote on his website had selected most of the material, drawn specifically from the period 1993-97 when Oldham traded variously as Palace, Palace Brothers, Palace Song and Palace Music. Now, he and co-producer Mark Nevers (the Lambchop guitarist who also helmed 2003’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy album, Master And Everyone) would round up a band of session players?regularly employed as Alan Jackson’s studio crew?and recast these odd, uneasy songs as rousing country classics.
The resulting album is, perhaps, the most wilfully perverse stunt ever pulled by Oldham, a man for whom wrong-footing his audience has been a modus operandi rather than an occasional indulgence. On Master And Everyone, the arrangements were so determinedly minimal, with supporting players only a faint spectral presence, that it seemed Oldham had emphatically rejected the ornate. To follow it up with a project as contrary as Greatest Palace Music looks like a wicked practical joke, a way of defiling the songs which his audience, if not necessarily Oldham himself, hold most sacred.
Yet there’s clearly little ironic about Greatest Palace Music, possibly the most straightforwardly enjoyable album Oldham has produced thus far. It’s not his best: 1999’s/See A Darkness, his debut as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is still secure in that position. But Oldham’s increasing spirit and confidence, the uncomplicated joy he has from hearing his songs played by consummate professionals, is clear and infectious.
As one who’s spent most of his career adopting roles and obfuscating his true character, surrounding himself with these fantastically slick players appears to have relaxed Oldham. He sounds more human, less theatrical, touchingly direct: the magnificent “Gulf Shores” is sung here with a tenderness which, for all his quavering conceits, he never managed on the 1994 original.
Whether by accident or design, the whole operation highlights just how good a songwriter Oldham has always been, as these 15 tunes are rescued from their idiosyncratic lo-fi origins and turned into standards. If Johnny Cash’s version of “I See A Darkness” alerted country conservatives to Oldham’s existence, then Greatest Palace Songs is Oldham asserting himself before them as a master craftsman. And if his most obvious role model?Bob Dylan?can be assimilated by the establishment, then so can he. Not only is this Oldham’s Nashville Skyline, it highlights a similarly irreverent relationship with his own back catalogue, of which these reinventions are only the latest and most conspicuous examples.
In fact, a former Dylan collaborator takes the lead on many of the songs. Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the blind pianist who figured on Blonde On Blonde (which Oldham claims not to have heard in a decade), is an elegant presence throughout Greatest Palace Music, turning “Pushkin”into a languid roll, or the plaintive “I Send My Love To You” into a roistering farmyard hoedown. Pointedly keen to debunk his own morose stereotype, Oldham sounds in hog heaven.
Not everything quite works. “New Partner” is sullied by a ponderous electric guitar (played by long-time collaborator Matt Sweeney, once of Zwan), and even the most open-minded loyalist will probably wince, at least initially, at the sunny jogs through “Ohio River Boat Song” and “Horses”, or the saxophone solo on “Viva Ultra”. Their fears that Oldham has become terminally cheerful may be derailed by the simultaneous appearance of his latest soundtrack mini album, Seafarers Music: four long, pensive and unfussy guitar instrumentals reminiscent of his old sparring partner, David Pajo.
Critically, though, Greatest Palace Music proves that exuberance and poignancy, professionalism and veracity are not mutually irreconcilable concepts. Oldham is undoubtedly playing with his audience’s expectations: on the most audacious track, the formerly anguished “I Am A Cinematographer” is reworked, brilliantly, as western swing. But in doing so, he’s cannily showing us his songs are good enough to withstand any treatment or desecration that he, or any other performer, can impose on them. Better still, the prospect of Oldham’s preternaturally twisted songs being played on mainstream country radio is as delicious as it was once unimaginable. It all adds up to a frequently uproarious, deeply affectionate record, full of good jokes worth sharing with everyone.