“Change is a constant and so I am constantly changing,” sings Will Oldham on the first track of his new album. It’s an existential truism that also works as a reminder to listeners – don’t expect any repeat performances. However securely coupled to country, folk and Southern Americana his music may be, Oldham, who adopted the Bonnie “Prince” Billy alias in 1998, is a protean modernist. So, alongside the album of Merle Haggard covers and multiple recordings with Emmett Kelly’s Cairo Gang, his résumé includes two shapeshifting LPs made with fellow “wolf” Matt Sweeney and last year’s collaboration with Bill Callahan on Blind Date Party, a spirited double that includes such unlikely covers as “Deacon Blue” and Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay”. Hook-ups with Tortoise, Baby Dee, Royal Trux and Björk also figure.
Those wanderings are as much about Oldham’s practice as his expression, though clearly the two are connected. That is, the idea of community, of collaborative music-making as a way of reaching out if you are, as he once said of himself, “constantly battling a tendency towards isolation”. To that effect, for Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You, he gathered together a bunch of local Louisville musicians for an in-the-room set that took around six weeks to record and must have been a joy after the pandemic-imposed remoteness of Blind Date Party. Initial sessions were recorded with bass and drums but those takes were scrapped, with the result that the songs have a more traditional feel (it may be worth remembering that drums are rare in Appalachian music). A rhythm section most likely seemed over-emphatic, given the songs’ fine bones and at times stately bearing. At their core is the musical heritage of Oldham’s home state and by extension, the Child ballads, but those are inspirations, not stone tablets; there’s communion with the usual crew of Cohen, Cash, Prine and David Berman, plus some pleasingly out-of-context flourishes.
It’s an intimate set suffused with love, understanding and skittish dark humour, that addresses on both universal and personal levels what it means to be alive in the 21st century. Though mortality and Earth’s devastation cast an apocalyptic shadow, Oldham is never morbid – his singular lyricism lightens the philosophical load and sweet melodies abound. “Like It Or Not” is the dulcet, Sunday school-ish opener, a reflection on purpose, the constancy of change and the levelling effect of our shared fate. Simple guitar chords and Oldham’s lilting, close-mic’d voice are matched with minimal mandolin and a soft backing vocal: “Everyone dies in the end so there’s nothing to hide,” he sings almost cheerfully, in an echo of the album’s title. “Like it or not, I’m singing destruction!/ Like it or not, I’m happy today!/Rise up and remember your golden instruction!/The end of the world isn’t going away.” It’s followed by “Behold! Be Held!”, which begins with what reads like a memo to his music-industry masters (“I want to make music all the time, not just in fits and skirmishes”) but unfolds as a(nother) relaxed reminder of “that gruelling death bell”, adding keyboards and some raffish saxophone. “Bananas” is a rapturous declaration of love that nods to Neil Young’s “Comes A Time” and features the operatically pure pipes of Dane Waters as well as a perfectly placed “shit”.
There’s a change of mood for “Blood Of The Wine”, which shifts between a canter and a slow waltz and features powerfully underplayed mandolin and strings. More dramatic is “Trees Of Hell”, a vivid and foreboding, gothic-country portrait of ecological destruction, collective culpability and nature’s revenge. Lightness returns with “Rise And Rule (She Was Born In Honolulu)”, a finger-picked number in the English traditional style that ruminates on ancestry and keeping the names of those we’ve lost alive, and closer “Good Morning, Popocatépetl”. Here, over gently lapping guitar and murmurous keys, Oldham harmonises with himself, vowing revenge for any wrong done to his friends. Taking his lyrics at face value is, of course, as unwise now as it ever was.
As the title suggests, Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You is an open, compassionate record with a fierce spirit, though it’s nothing like a guts spiller – that’s never been Oldham’s way. But it does have a purpose that goes beyond self-expression, which is maybe why it lands with such resounding sincerity and winning charm. As he writes on his Bandcamp page, “its songs and music are by and for people together. For listening together. Before it gets too late.”