Artist: Bonnie 'Prince' Billy
Title: The Letting Go
Catalogue Number: WIGLP182
Year of Release: 2006
A1 Love Comes To Me (4:31)
A2 Strange Form Of Life (3:46)
A3 Wai (3:37)
A4 Cursed Sleep (5:35)
A5 No Bad News (4:45)
A6 Cold & Wet (2:21)
B1 Big Friday (2:43)
B2 Lay And Love (3:50)
B3 The Seedling (4:36)
B4 Then The Letting Go (5:19)
B5 God's Small Song (4:03)
B6 I Called You Back (7:51)
At this stage in his career you might forgive Will Oldham for slacking off a bit, but I find it astonishing that he can still put out fabulous collections of songs such as this, working with new people, and continuing to sound fresh, some 14 years after his first release.
Many critics still consider I See A Darkness to be the peak he has never since returned too, others write about how he hasn't yet put out a great 'album' (ignoring that fact that the The Beatles never did), but I would wave an arm over his back catalogue and say - who else has built such an impressive songbook, recorded with such consistency of quality, and confounded expectations again and again?
This particular record, following on from taster single Cursed Sleep sees Will working with producer Valgeir Sigurdsson and Faun Fables vocalist Dawn McCarthy and a string quartet, alongside the more usual collaborators - brother Paul Oldham on bass, Jim White on drums and Emmett Kelly on guitar.
And it seems Will really knows how to open an album these days. The string quartet kicks things off, you can hear Will counting other people in, a neat touch that highlights the intimacy of his vocals - often recorded in such a way that he appears to be singing right into your ears - acoustic guitar strums lightly, and he sings:
When the numbers, get so high
Of the dead, flying through the sky
Oh I, I don't know why
Love comes to me, love comes to me
Dawn joins the last lines and adds background vocals to the rest of the song, and is further joined by light percussion and a slightly out-of-kilter country-sounding electric-guitar solo. The song itself is as close a Bonnie Billy comes to a standard love song, singing "O sugar, won't you be my only?", but framing it with references to Nietzsche and lines like, "your eyeballs, they unreal me".
Strange Form of Life contains all the same elements, but with the air of menace often exhibited in Will Oldham numbers, the wish to "Kiss twice, the softest lips" sounding like a threat. The strings here add to the wintery atmosphere of this album. This is probably, in part, due to its being recorded in Iceland, but it also came out in late September in the UK, which is pretty much winter in Scotland.
Anyway, the tone of Strange Form of Life chimes nicely with Cursed Sleep and inbetween sits Wai, a cute number with some of the most noticeable drumming from Jim White. Even in such a seeming-straightforward love song there are mentions of "bitter bile", "your inner croco shout" and curling up and dying.
(The lyric about 'croco shout' may have inspired the video for Cold & Wet, for which see YouTube)
No Bad News is one of those songs that never tells you what it's about, like P.J. Harvey's You Said Something. It's a simple trick to make a song universally applicable, the kind used by mediums and astrologers. It's well observed, with the odd turns of phrase you'd expect by now (see songmeanings for full lyrics), as well as a great coda.
Cold & Wet is one of my favourites off the record, and one of the tracks where Valgeir's production and mixing are most noticeable. It's a simple blues number with wilfully obscure lyrics (even judged against the songs so far) , but some studio trickery makes the acoustic guitar jump like a scratched CD, which I liked very much. It was also a light-hearted break in the record, and a great way to end the first side.
The Seedling recalls earlier tracks with a heavy mythological bent, and Dawn is on her most forceful as a backing singer here, accompanied by a deep male backing vocal too, and the strings stab ominously. A weird and unsettling number, and immediately followed by the title track, a tale of getting lost in the snow, and death, possibly murder.
I'm of the opinion that the album could have stopped there and been hailed as a masterpiece, but two songs are added that only really serve to drag things out. God's Small Song, a b-side from Cursed Sleep and then I Called You Back, which is the clearest and out-and-out love song on here, pitched somewhere between We'll Meet Again, and Death Is Not The End. It plods along fine, and has a flugelhorn solo which is always something to be encouraged, but it's a bit out of place on here.
If you like this album it's worth listening to Wai Notes too which has some excellent demo versions of some of the songs here.
These photos are of the insert: