“NEW HARMONY ON AN AWESOME SCALE,” announces Will Oldham on “Missing One”. Somewhere in the shadows, there’s a singer called Ashley Webber playing a discreet Emmylou to his Gram, the latest harmonious foil chosen to track his tremulous voice. Oldham’s voice is much less wayward than it was on the Palace and early Bonnie “Prince” Billy records, of course, but it’s strange how he’s recently found it useful to match his voice against another: on “The Letting Go”, Dawn McCarthy from Faun Fables; on last year’s overlooked covers set, “Ask Forgiveness”, Meg Baird from Espers.
Ashley Webber is an interesting recruit, though, because I can’t recall hearing much of her singing previously. Webber figures as part of the extended line-up – on keyboards, if memory serves? – of the Pink Mountaintops, Stephen McBean’s Velvetsy spin-off from Black Mountain. It transpires, though, that Webber’s voice – stirring, fulsome, warmly forlorn – is uncannily similar to that of her sister, Amber, who sings with Black Mountain and yet another of that band’s multiple worthwhile offshoots, Lightning Dust.
“So Everyone”, the third song on “Lie Down In The Light”, begins strikingly like a Lightning Dust song, Ashley Webber’s voice so starkly exposed and windswept. In general, though, the album represents a further humanising, it seems, of the Bonnie Billy character. Where once it was easier to stereotype Oldham’s stage persona, however much it seemed in constant flux, as something of a hillbilly visionary, possibly with blood on his hands, now he seems a much more reliable and approachable figure, preoccupied with the kinder possibilities of human experience.
The temptation, of course, is to assume that this soft-singing man who, in the wonderful “Other’s Gain”, counsels, “Keep your loved ones near” is somehow the ‘real’ Will Oldham. But the realities of this actor, singer-cinematographer, ever-evasive game-player are so obfuscated, it seems unlikely to be so straightforward. After all, 15-odd years of Oldham’s absorbing music have taught us, perhaps better than any other artist of that period, that authenticity has nothing to do with the emotional potency of a song.
So here we are, with Oldham following the lighter path that he hinted at on “I’m Lovin’ The Street”, the sole original song on “Ask Forgiveness”. Only the opening track here, “Easy Does It”, approaches that song for actual jauntiness There’s a playful spring in his step as he picks his way through the fiddle and harmonies, past a rollicking Nashville piano part from Tony Crow (Lambchop, Silver Jews and so on) that echoes the work done by Hargus Robbins on “Greatest Palace Music”.
The Oldham album it reminds me most of, however, is “Ease Down The Road”, one of the first times he showed a warmth and adopted a more leisurely gait. “Lie Down In The Light” is not an immediate album: I received it a week ago (I think it’s actually on sale now), and it’s only this morning, really, that the strength of songs like “Other’s Gain” and “Willow Trees Bend” have become apparent. After so long, I feel I sometimes take Oldham’s stunning consistency, a consistency that endures even while he shuffles his collaborators so frequently and quests for new challenges, for granted. But this is a lovely record, and one I’ll revisit.