The discography of Will Oldham — a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy, a.k.a. Bonny Billy, a.k.a. Palace Brothers/Songs/Music — as a singer, songwriter, producer, and collaborator is so large that it gives me anxious fits. I guess as a listener it can be thrilling; the quality of that output is so high that you could toss darts at a shelf and end up with something great. But as a writer, it’s incredibly intimidating. To speak with anything like authority on Oldham’s work, you’d have to devote yourself to PhD-level studies.
In some ways, then, that makes him a perfect subject for this series. My relationship to Oldham’s catalogue isn’t unique; I get nervous writing about just about anyone, regardless of how much or how little I know about them. A couple of months ago I wrote about a post-punk band called Parquet Courts, who at the time had just released their debut album to very little recognition. I listened to their record on a loop as I drove around Chicago looking for a place to live, and found myself entranced by it in ways I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was one of a handful of people who even knew this record existed, much less had anything to say about it, but when I sat down to write my review I froze up, knowing that I couldn’t speak from any kind of personal experience about the bands who so clearly influenced that record. Put differently, the cities upon cities of music that exist in the world are exciting as a listener, and it’s a thrill to stroll through them with whim as your guide. But when your relationship to music changes, when you pay the role of cartographer, the tagging of every avenue, alleyway, and dead-end is exhausting to the point of analytical paralysis. When This American Life played a rerun of their feature on the guys who map every crack in New York City’s sidewalks a few weeks back, I winced in recognition.
When I started writing about music, I simply wandered the city and reported back on what I’d seen. Part of what makes writing this blog so refreshing to me is the freedom it’s afforded me to do just that. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t been worried about writing this piece, if only because I know that there are hours of Oldham’s material I’ve never even heard of, much less heard. But I love what I do know of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, so much so that when I realized that today was the day I’d get to listen to Funtown Comedown, I said “Yes!” to myself, alone but out loud, and did that cha-chinging arm motion. It’s a good place to get lost.
Funtown Comedown captures Oldham playing live to a tiny room with Louisville bluegrass band The Picket Line, and it might be my favorite recording of his. Oldham’s songs tend to be dramatic in the extreme — there’s a reason Johnny Cash covered “I See a Darkness” — but, even at their most stark, the versions here are buoyed by The Picket Line’s playing. The studio iteration of “Wolf Among Wolves” that appears on 2003’s Master and Everyone is gorgeous and austere, with Oldham’s voice gripping a simple guitar line like sandpaper. Here, Danny Kiely fashions a curving bassline, giving that voice a vehicle in which to ride, which in turn gives the song an even deeper dramatic propulsion. Then the entire group starts howling. Oldham has had scores of singing partners, but he and Cheyenne Mize twirl together seamlessly as they climb the chorus of Ralph Stanley’s “Hemlocks and Primroses.” The crowd noise, such as it is, is left in, and there are so few pairs of hands to clap along to “Idle Hands are the Devil’s Playthings” that you can’t help but feel like they had to have been in a church basement or some far-flung bingo hall. And maybe they were; he made Bourques’ Social Club in Scott, Louisiana, his July 4th stop a few years ago.
I don’t know the studio versions of most of these songs — I had to cheat with YouTube just to verify that “Wolf Among Wolves” sounded the way I thought it might — but I adore Funtown Comedown. There are countless ways to explore Oldham’s discography, all of them influenced by large and well-lit signs erected by critics older and wiser than me (1999’s canonical I See a Darkness being the largest), but all of them personalized by the explorer. I love Bonnie “Prince” Billy — did I mention that? — but I know that there are years worth of recordings left for me to encounter. When I focus on trying to find my current position within the overall grid, I stop walking — or, actually, I keep walking, but with my nose buried in the map, I can’t really see anything around me, and end up with very little to report. This project is an excuse for me to re-learn how to listen to music. At least for today, and hopefully again tomorrow, I’m going to put the map away.
2. Bourque’s is actually, by all accounts, a pretty awesome place. Despite having the best Goodwill in the Acadiana area and the most respected boudin anywhere, Scott is not. Back to post.