Of course the practicalities of listening to music in the Uncut office shouldn’t concern you much, but it’s worth noting that for some weeks, possibly months now, we’ve been grappling with the new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album, “Beware”, widely proclaimed as one of his best ever and yet, round these parts at least, treacherously hard to hear properly.
There’s some clever scheming going on around “Beware”, which I’ll get to shortly, and which conceivably was behind our first copy of the album being rendered unlistenable by security announcements every couple of minutes totally interrupting the songs. Then we received a watermarked copy, which our capricious stereo chose to spit out after about three tracks. A bit of a pain.
Now I’ve managed to play it properly, however, I can see that all the wry hype around “Beware” is justified; it’s one of the most consistent, crafted and immediate records that Will Oldham has made in his exceptional career. In his superb New Yorker profile of Oldham last month, Kelefa Sanneh reported, “He intends to promote the album with singles, a photo shoot, and a handful of interviews, if only to prove that record promotion doesn’t really work, at least not for him.”
With the security-heavy CDs and comparatively hyperbolic press releases privileging the accessibility of “Beware”, it began to look as if Drag City/Domino were calling Oldham’s bluff, doing everything in their power to point up the new record as distinct from his vast catalogue. It was as if they were marketing it as a major statement to ensure that it would sell more than, say, 2008’s “Lie Down In The Light” (a record which was not even promoed to journalists ahead of release) and consequently prove Oldham, so sceptical of marketing, wrong.
The thing is, “Beware” really does feel like a major statement from this most elusive of brilliant songwriters. In terms of sound, it’s something of a return to country, with a richness that verges on the territory of 2004’s “Sings Greatest Palace Music” and a confident roll that recalls “Ease Down The Road” from 2001. On the past few albums, Oldham’s gradually strengthening voice has been countered by potent female singers like Dawn The Faun, Meg Baird and Ashley Webber.
Here, on songs like the triumphal opening “Beware Your Only Friend” the whooping “I Am Goodbye” or “My Life’s Work”, Oldham fronts up alongside a swelling Nashville choir of sorts, while there’s a hint of the McGarrigles, perhaps, to “I Won’t Ask Again”. “My Life’s Work”, incidentally, has a brief saxophone solo that betrays the jazz backgrounds of many of the players on these Chicago sessions. By the final and extraordinary “Afraid Ain’t Me”, there’s an airy, orbital feel to the music that’s vaguely reminiscent, in places, of Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks”.
As part of his calculated press offensive, Oldham crops up in the new Uncut, talking through his best albums (though not, weirdly, “Days In The Wake”). There’s some talk of Dillard & Clark in relation to “Beware”, which seems apposite. In The New Yorker piece, Sanneh calls the record “deeply satisfying” and notes how it “conjures a mood of resolution, maybe even finality.”
That’s palpable in some truly beautiful songs here, “Death Final” and “I Don’t Love Anyone” (a distant cousin of Dylan’s “Senor”, perhaps), which are just about as good as Oldham has ever written. “Beware” is more rueful than morbid, though (this is far from a sequel to “I See A Darkness”), and there are some very funny moments. The roistering “You Don’t Love Me” presents the Prince as a somewhat unlikely sex object, confronted with a woman who only wants him for his body. “Sometimes you like the smell of me or how my stomach jiggles,” he sings, as horns contribute to the generally uproarious atmosphere. “You don’t love me, but that’s alright/’Cos you bring to me, all through the night.”