A new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album often prompts me to visit a remarkable resource called The Royal Stable, a website dedicated to thoroughly cataloguing and cross-referencing this most fiendishly complicated of musical careers.
Here, I’m reminded that Will Oldham has released a glut of singles and downloads this year (some of which I must admit I’ve never heard of, let alone heard), and that he narrated an audio book (Rudolf Wurlitzer’s Slow Fade) I forgot to listen to on a series of transatlantic flights. He also, it seems, contributed a song to a full cover version of Sufjan Stevens’ best album, “Seven Swans”.
Oldham fans can easily get lost on The Royal Stable, awed that at least one fan somehow manages to keep up with the tireless multifarious activities of their hero. One of the most useful parts of the site is a list of players, detailing the vast cast of musicians who have backed Oldham over the years.
This time, I was keen to find out if one Angel Olsen had a history with Oldham – she doesn’t, it seems – since she’s the chosen female vocalist on the wonderful new Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album, “Wolfroy Goes To Town”. In a similar vein to last year’s “Wonder Show Of The World”, “Wolfroy…” finds Oldham passing through immensely stark and hushed settings, sometimes with only a couple of other voices for company.
“Wolfroy…” begins with a slow country amble, “No Match”, and reaches a sort of peak with a gently rollicking “Quail And Dumplings” – featuring some intense ululating from Olsen – both of which suggest a more discreet take on the vibes of, maybe, “Ease Down The Road”.
“New Whaling”, though, reveals the prevailing atmosphere of “Wolfroy…”: Oldham’s voice, ever more potent, set over the merest shades of an acoustic guitar (presumably that of Emmett Kelly), eventually supplemented by some intricate harmony vocals. The mood is even more quiet, delicate and sepulchral than that of “The Wonder Show…” Compression is emphatically not deployed: listening on headphones in central London, you may have to boost the volume up as high as it’ll go, only to be surprised by the relative, modest noise of one of the album’s rare crescendos.
The two most striking occur in what feel, at this point, like the album’s best two songs, “New Tibet” (blessed with one of those calculatedly outrageous lines Oldham usually drops in on each album: it begins, I think, “As boys, we fuck each other”) and “Cows”, which moves with great stealth for three and a half minutes before a solitary martial drum and two electric guitars in harmony appear, rear, and are then replaced by a vocal passage of madrigal-like complexity.
It’s a lovely trick, which recalls “Wonder Show” highlight, “That’s What Our Love Is”. A debt to Mickey Newbury is plausible, too, now I’ve spent the best part of a year with the “American Trilogy” set. There’s similar unflinching intimacy, extreme focus, a sense of finely-wrought songs whittled down to their essence, then allowed to unravel in the most stately and unhurried way.
And what of Angel Olsen? A Chicago singer, it transpires, who is given occasional space to show off an uncanny, charming voice pitched somewhere between campfire and Broadway; the closest analogue among previous Oldham collaborators may be Dawn The Faun McCarthy. Check out Olsen’s airy, wordless solo spot, backed up by some unshowy Spanish virtuosity from (assuming again) Kelly in the middle of “Time To Be Clear”. It’s great – anyone know more about her?